The 5 Biggest Drawbacks of Project Planning using Sticky Notes

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If you’ve ever come away from a sticky note planning workshop wishing that you hadn’t bothered going, then you’re probably not alone

Although far from being the only way to run a planning workshop, this is one of the more popular and the most infuriating. On any given day thousands of project teams spend hundreds of thousands of hours in meeting rooms and off-sites in these events.

The Benefits of the ‘Brown Paper and Sticky Note’ planning workshop

Overall this approach does provide project leaders and teams with a sense of what needs to done to deliver the project:

  • They are good for bringing people together to discuss the project
  • They are good for identifying high level activities and / or tasks
  • They are good for giving the project manager the ability to say that they have “kicked the project off”.

Yet, this is not without the disadvantages described are still there. However, there is worse to come.

What can happen to your project when you plan using sticky notes

In case you’re unfamiliar with this method of creating high level plans, here is a light-hearted but accurate summary:

  1. The project manager organises the planning workshop, usually a few weeks ahead of time so that the attendees have sufficient time to plan for the event.  People don’t plan for the event though, as they know that it’s a sticky note planning workshop so they can just do what they need to when they get there.
  2. The participants get together and are briefed on the goal of the project and the expected outcome. At least, those who bothered to turn up.
  3. Everyone writes down the key activities and milestones that they will need to complete to deliver the project.  Or at least, the ones that they remember this time around.  They do this by writing in the activities on sticky notes which they place on large sheets of brown paper posted on the walls. Often the writing is too small, or too awful to read easily, but there’s limited space to write on a piece of paper that’s less than 3 inches square.  Besides everyone is in a hurry because they have lots of notes to write . . .
  4. Everyone then spends time reading what other people have written.  They make changes, or add more notes to the paper.   The project manager gets the authors of some of the notes to tell everyone what it was that they wrote down.  This takes up valuable time
  5. As a group the participants review and move the sticky notes around until they are happy that they have a good high level plan for the project. Success!
  6. Then the notes start falling off the wall.  You spend the next 30 minutes or so trying to walk through the plan with notes falling off and being put back, sometimes in the wrong place, sometimes upside down . . .
  7. Then the workshop ends and everyone leaves hoping that the notes will survive being rolled up and transported to a place where the information can be transcribed onto something more useful . . .

5 Key Drawbacks to project planning using sticky notes

Now don’t get me wrong, I love sticky notes.  I buy them by the bunch and use them all the time.  However, this planning approach has its drawbacks and it isn’t the notes. Here are the main ones:

  1. Reliance on subject matter experts.  Attendees need to be experienced in your methodology in order to successfully identify the key activities.  This usually makes them hard to get hold of as they are often too busy working on projects to attend workshops.  Even if they are present, you’re reliant on them actively contributing to the session.
  2. Lack of consistency.  Planning workshops are usually led by project managers, who may not be good facilitators.  As a result the outcomes from workshops range from very good to abysmal.
  3. Low levels of knowledge transfer.  The workshop fails to take into account dependencies on other projects, re-use of knowledge, ideas and artefacts, or lessons learned from other projects.  This means that projects continue to be planned in silos, leading to resource conflicts, schedule delays and missed deadlines.
  4. Lack of follow-up and follow through.  The lack of a clear and repeatable model for planning workshops means that the outcome of the event is highly variable.  Often participants leave the workshops with no clear actions to take.  Worse still, they may leave the workshop more confused by the project than they were when they arrived.  The project may have to have several such workshops in order to create meaningful action and to get traction.
  5. Problems with facilities, layout and logistics.  This covers a range of practical considerations, including problems getting rooms big enough to hold the event in, the cost of brown paper and its lack of re-use, problems with the whole idea of planning using sticky notes in the first place (where do I start?), the lack of stickiness of some – cheaper – brands of sticky notes and the fact that every surface in the room is covered in sticky stuff!

Conclusion

Project planning using sticky notes can and does work, but it’s not the only way and there are better alternatives. You owe it to your project, your organisation and yourself to use them.