Meetings are better with collaborative notes

It now feels like ages ago when someone at an organization I was volunteering with introduced me to collaborative notes: an openly shared Google Document that could be edited by any of us at the meeting and accessed by us all afterwards.

It was a revelation.

Now, I had always been a huge proponent of taking notes—I even once had a job where part of my role was taking board meeting minutes.  I had also been an advocate for sharing those notes with everyone who was at the meeting. 

But.

Collaborative notes are next level.

Let me tell you why.

Meeting notes, when done well, serve as documentation of what was discussed, decisions made, and who is responsible for which follow-up items.

To be fair, not all meeting notes are created equally, but they should all contain some key information: when the meeting occurred, who participated, what was discussed, decisions that were made, and any action items that resulted (hopefully also with who is responsible for completing them and by when).

When you have documented this key information in the meeting notes, then meeting notes can serve a few key functions.

Meeting notes can serve as a decision log, documenting decisions that were made, alongside with notes about the discussion leading to them, or why those decisions were made.  This makes it easier to go back and look, when circumstances change, to see whether a decision should be adjusted.  Listing the participants also allows you to see who was or was not part of making that decision.

Meeting notes can also act as a way to track who said they would do what, so that you can follow up with the appropriate person after the meeting.  Even for things I’ve signed up to do, action items in meeting notes serve as a reminder that I can then check off (I do like to check things off!).  In turn, my checking things off can tell anyone else looking at the meeting notes that this task has been completed.

And of course, meeting notes can serve as a bit of a historical record for a team, a program, or a project.  How are we progressing?  What changed along the way?  Perhaps, what did we learn?

Shared meeting notes give everyone access to one central source of key information from the meeting.

In general, it’s a good practice to share meeting notes because so that people who were not there (or who joined late or had to leave early) can access at least some of the key information from that meeting.  It’s also good because no one remembers everything anyway.  Even if people take their own notes, then there is a different set of notes per every participant and without shared meeting notes, there is no one source of truth about what was discussed, what was decided, or who needs to do what afterwards. 

And this is critical: Shared meeting notes help create shared meaning. 

Imagine what happens when one person writes down that Keisha from marketing will share the microsite mockups by the end of the week, and another person writes down that Marketing will share the website mockups by Monday. 

Disputes can abound when everybody has their own version of what happened at the meeting.  But having a central source of shared meeting notes means that there is one version to dispute rather than 8 conflicting ones. 

Collaborative notes, when everyone in the meeting contributes to them, give participants more agency in shaping the meaning of the meeting.

Speaking of shared meaning, creating the record of what happened during the meeting together also gives participants more agency in shaping this meaning—not only during the meeting, but what gets documented afterwards.  People are usually more engaged when they both have more agency and can see how their inputs make a difference.  People will have their own interpretations and their own ways to make sense of what happened regardless—better that all those different interpretations come together in meeting notes visible to everyone so that everyone can get on the same page.

There can be power in who gets to write the meeting notes and thus synthesize and determine the meaning of what occurred during the meeting.  On the flipside, it is also easy to dismiss the official notes when you think they’ve missed a lot or misunderstood a lot of what was said.

And collaborative meeting notes that everyone can see in real time allow for people to clarify and correct things during the meeting.

When people co-create the notes during the meeting—as opposed to adding their individual notes to a shared document afterwards (which, let’s be real, will likely be mainly the notes of whoever cares the most)—this gives others in the meeting the opportunity to clarify and correct things that may have been noted incorrectly or that are unclear.  Yes, sharing out meeting notes after the meeting still allows for this but sometimes people don’t, or they do raise it, but it gets lost in the email inbox swamp.  Being able to see and respond and raise the question during the meeting, while everyone is still there, means it’s more likely to be resolved and resolved more quickly than the devolving reply-all email chain.  Who needs that endless back and forth when everybody has already checked out of the meeting?

Simply put, collaborative meeting notes are more efficient and they help you facilitate more engaging and effective meetings.  Make your meeting notes collaborative by default.