Post-it notes, performance and innovation

This is a blog about creativity culture and post-it notes.

Post-it notes

I worked in the Performance and Innovation Unit of the Cabinet Office for a bit. The unit prided itself on finding new, better, more innovative ways of working, and finding solutions to policy problems that more traditional ways of working might not.

Staff were recruited to work on short-term projects based on their expertise, often from outside government. As a result, the culture felt a bit different from other bits of government.

We worked with a team from ?What If!, the innovation consultancy, on our approach to creativity. We held meetings in our creativity room, sitting on beanbags, wearing de Bono’s thinking hats.

We had a website that looked nothing like a government website, ridiculous flash intro and all. I was given an iPaq to work from, and an official mobile phone (I think before I had a mobile of my own).

I enjoyed working there. It was early in my career and I was lucky to be exposed to a culture that encouraged staff to try a few different approaches to getting stuff done.

And working there – and then in the more celebrated Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit which it morphed into – was probably the most effective bit of networking I could have done. In every job I’ve had in Whitehall since, I’ve bumped into people I met in the PIU, often now in exalted positions.

Looking back, I wonder what the rest of Whitehall made of it all. Some of it must have seemed a bit silly. Some in Whitehall probably resented being told where they were going wrong by the beanbag-sitting, management-theory-quoting, iPaq-holding, post-it-note-sticking upstarts from the PIU. Lots of people wanted to work there.

I remember attending a seminar on creativity while I was there, and listening to a session led by an innovation lead from 3M, the people who make post-it notes. I heard how 3M operated some of the most innovative working practices around. In fact the history of the post-it note – the by-product of an attempt to do something else entirely – is itself a story of the utility of innovative working practices.

I’ve been reminded of that seminar again recently. Post-it notes are suddenly everywhere I look. The walls of Aviation House are apparently covered in them, and I may be imagining it, but it seems as though my Twitter stream is filling up with people posting photos of their own versions of post-it note walls.

And when my boss blogged about the first meeting of the Digital Leaders network it sparked these daft comments about the post-its used during part of the meeting:

“Why did they have a physical meeting? This could have been done far more effectively using digital tools – communication and collaboration tools that would have taken ideas and automatically captured them, rather than the joys of Post It notes and pens”

No serious digital person really thinks online tools should be used instead of all physical interaction. It’s the kind of comment that gives digital people a bad name.

But we should probably be a bit careful not to get just as carried away by the seemingly magical properties of the post-it note.

I was in a meeting recently in which a speaker began a presentation by talking about the post-it note display on the walls of his office, as if that was an end in itself, patronising, and then losing, his audience in the process.

Group low-tack wall-sticking can help with lots of things, but like the beanbags in the PIU creativity room, it’s no guarantee of innovation or good decision making.

The truth is, there are plenty of ways to generate good ideas, and we should probably have a go with lots of different techniques to help us do different things.

I’ve been interested recently to read about Susan Cain’s manifesto for the quiet revolution, in which she challenges approaches to group-thinking, advocating the power of asynchronous communication and quiet contemplation.

I reckon there’s a place for solitude and contemplation alongside all the crowd-sourcing, thinking hats, and post-it notes. In the end, I suppose, it’s about doing stuff that works.

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