History is not written by the victors
Apr 29, 2012

People say that history is written by the victors. Actually, history is written by the scribes. I suppose they can portray themselves as the victors – which makes the sentence true, in a way.

What I am leading to is this: if you are the note taker in any meeting, you control the outcome. Nobody remembers what happened in the meeting after two months. If you are the person who took the notes, you have the ability to change the perception of the meeting – without falsifying the information. You can create the right perception of the outcomes, action items and so on.

My pet peeve in most meeting is that people do not take notes. They rely on faulty memories to recreate the moments later on. They miss out the essential points. They miss out the nuances. They only remember what they think happened. It is like an Agatha Christie novel – nobody will remember all the conversations.

Here is my prescription for those problems, especially in the meetings where the agenda is fluid. There are two problems in meetings, especially, exploratory meetings:

I find it useful to use note taking as a way to take care of these problems. Here are a few simple note taking best practices:

Always take notes on a computer

In this day and age, you don’t want to use a notebook and then transcribe. If you are anything like me, you will never end up writing and enhancing. In fact, the more you practice taking notes on the computer, the better you will become. Imagine the effect you can create by sending out the notes and your thoughts immediately after the meeting!

You can use any tool for taking notes, but I prefer freemind (or XMind) as it is free. It is a mind-mapping tool, that provides a hierarchical view of the information. It is especially useful, when the information is hierarchical instead of being linear. For instance, if you are listing out all the team members and their role and other details– this information is not linear (you don’t care which order you get to them), but hierarchical (you list out the name and under the name you list the role and other details).

Start with a simple template

As I said, I prefer the mind map tool for this job. Before the meeting, I jot down the various aspect of the meeting that I am supposed to gather information about. (If I am providing the information, that is a different kind of meeting).

Take this example: Suppose we are having a meeting about a project we want to start. You are meeting the customer as a potential project manager. A possible information template could be:

Of course, your headings could change. The beauty of such arrangement is that you can see the items of similar importance at the same font size and same distance from the center (Radial Hierarchy).

Keep the hierarchy in mind – use it to guide your questions

As the meeting progresses, you find yourself doing the following:

  1. As you get information about any topic, you will put it under that topic. Good – this is the way to go.
  2. You are getting details about a topic, but the context is not there: What it means is that you are at level 1 and you are getting details about level 3. You will establish the context at level 2. Example: You may be given details about the project users, without categorizing the details. That means you will supply the categorization (like business users, consumers etc.).
  3. You are getting new top level topics: That may mean two things: you may not have thought about the meeting to give a good starting point. Or, the meeting is going off direction. In the first case, you add the topic to your mind map. In the second case, you nudge the meeting to the right topic: (“Before getting to those details, can you please tell me who are the people involved so far in the project?”).

If all things go well, you will get a rich description of the meeting. And, you will look like a genius for providing a structure and context to the information.

One advantage with mind-map tool is this: By looking at the picture, I can tell if we did a good job on information gathering or not. If we are too deep in one topic, the image shows the imbalance. If we did not cover a topic or excessively covered a level 2 topic, the picture clearly shows.

Publish it immediately

You think you will refine the mind-map, create a document and then publish it. Trust me, you won’t get around to it. I suggest you correct the typos, enter any contact information, clear out any questionable material, pay attention to the action items, and if needed, add your perspectives (make sure that is marked as your take on the meeting), and then publish it immediately. I publish my mind-map meeting minutes in less than 30 minutes after the meeting, in general.

Summary: Always take notes if you are participating in an exploratory meeting. Use a computer and a program to take the notes. Prepare an outline and use it to guide the meeting. Publish the finished outline.

Next steps

Here are several ways you can innovate on the basic theme:

Always try to see how you can capture in the computer itself, as it reduces the barriers to making the notes available digitally.