Struggle with the challenge of creating a great experience for your program participants or donors while balancing the needs of staff or volunteers or your organization? Trying to develop a new program, new event, new campaign, new operational capacity – and feel like you’re constantly discovering another missing piece you didn’t have in place?
Service design considers the needs of all stakeholders involved in a service or experience, how to create value both for the user and the provider, and all of the supporting infrastructure or processes needed to make that happen.
In this 30-minute talk from the 2022 Nonprofit Technology Conference, I provide an overview of service design and introduce a core method, the service blueprint, as a way to help you think through and plan what’s needed to deliver the experiences or outcomes you’re hoping to achieve for new and for existing programs.
While I really enjoy working with qualitative data, and while there are definitely camps of people who argue about the superiority of quantitative vs. qualitative data, what ultimately matters is what type of question you’re trying to answer. Certain methods are better suited for certain situations or types of information. Selecting your methods should be not be about what you prefer or are most skilled at (and thus most comfortable with), but about which method will help you answer your question. Each method has its strengths and its limitations.
Here’s how I think about design research methods:
On one axis: qualitative to quantitative.
Quantitative methods are for when you want to know, does this work or not? Surveys, website analytics, A/B testing – for these, you’re looking for patterns across a large sample size, or group of people (or interactions/transactions). Note: If you’ve only got 10 people to see data from, this is probably not going to be your best course because even 1 extreme case (10%!) is going to skew your results.
Qualitative methods are when you want to understand why. Why someone does things in a certain order, or why certain functions or features are important. If someone makes a frowny face when presented with something, what is it they were expecting instead?
On the other axis: attitudinal to behavioral.
Attitudinal methods are for when you want to know how someone feels about something. What’s their opinion? Even if you are surveying or interviewing someone about their past behavior, this is based on recall—which will be colored by how they felt about it.
In contrast, behavioral methods allow you to observe what the person is actually doing. Quantitative behavioral methods like analyzing website visitor behavior can tell you that 30% of website visitors did in fact click on the “Donate” button from the home page. It can’t tell you why, though. A usability test* allows you to observe behavior while people are trying to use your design to complete a task—so you can see the behavior directly without it being filtered by what the person thinks is relevant to tell you (or remembers), but you also have the ability to ask them questions. Like, “I noticed you moved your mouse back and forth between the Donate button and the Join Us button a couple times before clicking on the Donate button—can you tell me more?”
*A usability test is a test of how usable your design is—it is not a test of the user! For a usability test, you typically create some realistic tasks and have an idea of how you might expect them to go about the tasks, then you give them to someone who is representative of your audience of focus. What you’re looking for is whether your design and your expectations for how someone would do that task match up to a real person’s expectations of how things should work.
Let’s walk through an example.
Say that I’m doing advocacy work and I’m trying to get people to contact their government officials about how much we would in fact like a taco truck on every corner.
If I want to increase how many people open our emails and then sign our petitions, I’ll probably use A/B testing and look at the email analytics.
If I want to know whether people who supported our taco truck on every corner initiative are interested in our other initiatives, I’d use a survey.
If I want to understand what would motivate someone to recruit others to take action and how we could make it easy for them to form their own street team – I’d use interviews.
Typically, I will layer methods. For example, I might use web analytics or a survey to inform what questions I ask in interviews or what tasks I focus on during a usability test.
Just as the best tacos have multiple fillings with a mix of different flavors and textures – the same goes for when you’re gathering data to make for the most enjoyable eating experience!
Once upon a time I went to NTEN’s annual Nonprofit Technology Conferences and came away with all sorts of innovative, savvy, practical tips that I could take back and apply at work—sometimes that week.
These days I do a lot less operational work in my day-to-day and more strategic work (let me know if you need help figuring out any blob shaped problems!). So, while NTCs are still jampacked with practical knowledge exchange and lots of strategic content as well, I find myself reflecting most on the takeaways and questions posed that strike at the soul, why we do what we do and how that should inform what we do, whom we partner with, and the way in which we do our work.
Here are the things that struck me or resonated, and that I am still chewing on.
We have been lied to, and there are people who benefit from us internalizing these lies.
There was an excellent session (with Aki Shibuya, Bettina Sferrino, Vanice Dunn, and Tristan Penn) taking a systemic look at imposter syndrome. This is something I’ve long struggled with, always wondering when someone was going to find me out, and I really appreciated a look at the systems that perpetuate this experience and who benefits/is hurt by the belief that this something that people like me need to fix internally.
Are there ways in which we all benefit from learning to trust our own voices and judgment, from gaining experience and the confidence that can come with it? Sure. However, the panel also dug into the organizational practices and dynamics that require we feel inadequate – so that we buy into the idea that we must work more hours to make up for what we lack, so that we question our own judgment while accepting the judgment of others in power, so that we strive harder and harder to reach goal posts being moved further and further away because we were never meant to reach them. These can be practices like not having clear and consistent expectations for performance, and “accountability” that is applied unevenly. And while there are more ways to make a shift if you are a manager who has positional power, anyone can model things like, acknowledging when you don’t know something, and using one’s own privilege where you can.
In the chat for another session, there was a beautifully open exchange between several attendees about the use of identity-first (e.g., disabled people) vs. person-first (e.g., people with disabilities) language. The discussion was around whether it was a way to reclaim “disabled” from being a bad word that we must euphemize, or, whether we should recognize that there are people with disabilities who prefer person-first language. (All of the people involved in this thread of discussion identified as disabled or as having a disability.) One person who grew up hearing it used negatively against them (as someone with a disability), preferred person-first language. Another person questioned the need to remind anyone that they are a person first. It ended with some folks deciding they needed to reflect some more on whether this might be internalized ableism and people acknowledging there may be generational differences and people may be in different places in their journeys.
The first keynote was a conversation between Amy Sample Ward and Alice Wong, who runs the Disability Visibility Project (which includes a podcast and book of the same name). There was a lot of discussion how access is love, about survival, and about how normal is a scam.
I’ve been working with a coach for my own personal development, and one of the things I’ve been working is on is not judging how I feel, what I want, and generally things about myself. To declare something (or someone) normal or abnormal is both to participate in this judging and to perpetuate the myths about how the things that make us who we are, that these are things that are wrong (or right) with us. Who gains from that?
What do we gain when we accept all of who we are and who others are? I think only then we can imagine the world that Amy invites us in to build together:
There is no community without accountability—nor without grace.
Now, lots of people and organizations throw around the word “community” and don’t always back it up with systems and practice. So I loved what keynote speaker Angelica Ross said about community:
Now accountability and grace are not mutually exclusive. But sometimes, when we want people to do better and we know that they can, we can be frustrated and impatient. However, we can’t control what other people will do or think or feel—even as we feel the urgency of helping others see what we can see from where we sit.
And of course, the penultimate is to actually put our values into practice, and not surprisingly an event full of nonprofit techies is ready to dive in:
Saeed Jones reminded us that there are people in our community who notice how we speak up—or don’t. Are we learning about the struggles of others? How will they know they are safe with us? This can be a form of accountability we practice within ourselves.
Speaking of accountability and actively practicing our values, Ken Montenegro asked a really important question during his session with Colin Boyle about planning for failure:
They were talking about the context of a crisis and how sometimes the person making the decision is simply the person who happens to be there in that moment—and how it’s worth pausing to ask whether this decision should be made by this interim person or whether to gather the right people to make this decision first. Although this was about IT disasters, this too can be applied much more broadly. Are the people making the decision the people who understand the implications and who will be impacted by them?
Stories are powerful because of what they allow us to imagine.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the stories we tell about ourselves and that we tell ourselves (and others) about the world.
One really powerful story we often tell is about failure. Do we tell it as a story of catastrophe, of how we have become failures? Or do we view it as falling down while learning to ride a bike, part of the process of learning how to do new things? Is it a pathway to confidence?
There are, of course, also the stories we do not tell:
Related to the stories we tell (or don’t tell) about failure are the stories we tell ourselves about what we are capable of, and what’s possible. Are we honoring the full potential of who we are?
Speaking of “the full potential of who we are,” the U.S. political divides have lately centered a lot on the power of stories and language and which ideas are okay or not okay. (Judging again!) People are demanding that school boards ban teaching Critical Race Theory, ban saying the word “gay” in schools, and banning books that make them feel uncomfortable. (There are of course, many far more restrictive and persecutive laws being proposed passed across the country—and books and stories and language are part of this broader discourse. There are others who can speak to that better than I can.)
Who gets to see themselves and be seen? Who gets to imagine the future of their dreams?
And stories can be incredibly powerful when we feel alone and disconnected.
And, as Saeed Jones pointed out, many people will say they’re “not poetry people” while still pulling out poems for special occasions.
Imagine if we gave ourselves that gift. (Thank you, Bettina Sferrino, for that lovely prompt.)
An effective meme can function like a poem as a shortcut to that spark of recognition.
When I was a kid, I drew all the time. On anything. (Just ask my parents to move their couch—there is still crayon on that wall behind it!) While I have no plans to become a professional artist or graphic designer, I’ve carried drawing and sketching into adulthood, and into my work.
How, you wonder?
Have you ever had a conversation with someone, perhaps multiple people in a meeting, and then realized halfway through there were actually multiple conversations going on? As in, none of you were talking about the same thing, even if you were using the same words and convinced that you were?
Drawing a picture is the best way to get everyone on the same page. The challenge of discussing things that aren’t tangible, like a process or where all our data lives, is that everyone is working off of how they think things are related in their brain. Which is not to say that each person’s version isn’t each true, but it’s hard to tell if they line up with everyone else’s or not. Without anything tangible, we often assume that everyone else has access to the same information we do and that they’re seeing the same image of the thing in their head that we are.
Putting it down on paper (or a whiteboard, or an online canvas) for everyone to see at the same time, however, allows people to see where things don’t match up, fill in some gaps, and make corrections. Most importantly, it’s a prop that helps us make sure we’re all having a conversation about the same thing and know that everyone else is looking at the same thing.
Wait, but I can’t draw!
You doth protest too much. If you can draw a box and a line, you can draw a diagram. When you’re using visual communication, it doesn’t matter how it looks as long as people understand it. You’re not creating a pretty picture; you’re creating clarity.
Interested in learning more? Here’s a talk I gave, along with Adrienne Figus and Brianna Collins, at the 2022 Nonprofit Technology Conference with on how you can draw a map to clarity:
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.
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.
One of the things that can feel overwhelming for a lot of people, whether you’re beginning to collect data for the first time or you’re trying to clean up a decade’s worth of data, is how to prioritize which data you need.
Of course, there’s data you’re required to collect and keep due to regulations, taxes, grant contracts.
And then there’s the data that you will need in the course of your operations—like where to send donation thank you letters, volunteer contact information, client names, budget totals, event attendees, etc.
But of that second category, which data do you need to keep?
And, if you’re starting out, what data should you collect that would be helpful?
Here’s how I like to answer that question:
A question you can answer using data
What action can the organization take based on this data?
What data do you have (or can you get) that would be needed to answer this?
Example: Which social media channel generates the most conversions?
Example: We can change how much time we spend on various channels
Example: Click through rate
Table to use for prioritizing data to collect
By filling in this table, I can get a lot of clarity on which data is worth keeping or collecting.
First, identify some questions you’d like to be able to answer using data.
These are typically things that might help you make a decision. For example, is our current marketing strategy working as we’d hoped? Is our program achieving the intended goal? Did we budget appropriately for our technology needs?
Next, determine what actions you could take based on answering that question.
Perhaps you’ll spend more time on your TikTok content than YouTube if that’s what the data proves to be more effective. Maybe you’ll be able to (combined with demographic data) notice that your program is more effective for certain age groups than for others. Or you can budget more realistically for your technology needs in the future.
Last but not least, determine what data is needed to answer that question and evaluate whether you can actually obtain that data or whether it would be ethical to collect or keep it.
Of course, there are plenty of things we’d love to be able to answer. For example, we’d be interested to know what drives those seemingly random donations from new donors. But maybe it’s really not feasible to obtain that data beyond how they got to our donation page (e.g., from an email vs. social media vs. something else). Or perhaps we’d like to know how long the effect of our program lasts, but we work with a population that moves frequently.
Then again, there’s data that is highly sensitive in nature. Like someone’s undocumented status or the fact that an individual has contacted your organization about services related to intimate partner violence.
If you are dealing with data that puts your constituents at risk should it end up in the wrong hands, consider whether you actually need this data to fulfill your mission and if so, what steps you can take to minimize data collected, secure it, and carefully discard it as soon as possible.
Since many organizations went remote in 2020, many people have been starting new jobs remotely. As a freelancer and independent consultant, I started my first remote gig in 2016. And even before that, as someone who worked at an organization with partners nationwide, I frequently worked with colleagues who spent 50% of their time on the road as well as with people scattered across the country and whom I still haven’t met in person.
However, many people are still starting new jobs remotely for the first time – as I was reminded when a friend recently asked for advice before their first day.
Consider the organizational and team context.
Has the team always worked fully remotely, or have some of the team members worked together in person? Or, is the organization working in a hybrid form – you’re fully remote, but not everyone is?
Teams that have been remote from the start tend to have designed all of their internal processes around being a distributed team. While organizations that made their digital transformations as a result of the pandemic have figured out a lot of things by now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the team you’ll be working with isn’t still relying heavily on relationships that had been built when the team worked together in person. And depending on how a hybrid environment is set up, people who are in office may forget that things still need to be done differently for teammates who are remote. For example, that the team is no longer all within one time zone.
Also consider that, at a large organization hiring lots of people, they’ve had more opportunities to iron out the remote onboarding process. Smaller organizations that may only hire 1-2 new people a year may still be figuring things out.
Be more proactive and intentional in building relationships.
It used to be that your manager could simply walk you around the office on your first day and you’d meet most of the people you needed to meet that way. Then maybe you’d have some meetings set up with the key people you’d be working with over the next couple weeks.
Like all of the tips I’m mentioning, relationship building is something you want to do regardless of whether you’re starting your new job in person or remotely. However, you’ll want to be even more intentional in both meeting people (and asking them whom you should meet with) and in building relationships with those folks. On the other hand, it may also be easier to meet with people who normally would have been located in different offices or who traveled a lot.
Here’s a thread that shares a great approach to meet and greets:
If you find it hard to remember to circle back with people, and especially if your organization is large and dispersed, consider taking notes on any suggestions they made (e.g., to talk with such and such person) or insights they shared, and put a reminder on your calendar for a couple months later to let them know how that suggestion worked or how that insight was helpful.
Learn the time zones—and that these are not the same as working hours.
One major mental adjustment for people who are not accustomed to remote work or working with people who are not collocated is remembering that people may be in different time zones and/or may have different working hours. And for those of who have the flexibility, we may be trying out new structures, like only having meetings during certain hours and reserving other time for heads down work.
Perhaps everyone in your organization lives in the same region and is simply working remotely during the pandemic. But even if they are, this doesn’t mean they didn’t decide to take a couple weeks to visit family and work from a different part of the country. And it doesn’t mean that their hours are the same as if they would be commuting to and from the office. I know someone who starts his workday at 5 so that he can be done when his kids come home from school.
It is always a good idea to ask about general working hours or about preferences for scheduling meetings. For example, although I start working earlier, I usually try not to schedule meetings before 10 a.m. so I can get some focused time in first.
Figure out how to make use of existing tools and practices to communicate about your time zone and work schedule. Some people include their time zone next to their phone numbers in their email signatures (if phone numbers are shared). Shared calendars are useful for conveying working hours and availability for meetings—however, different teams and people have different norms around this and in how shared calendars are used (if at all). Often, it’s best to explicitly discuss this with the people you’ll be working with most closely.
Find out how the team shares information.
Speaking of how teams use shared calendars, if they do, it will be helpful to understand how teams share various types of information. Some teams are better at explicitly articulating this and cover it during onboarding, but in general there are usually things that tend to be things that people take for granted because they’re simply used to it.
How is information shared differently at the team and organizational levels?
Do they use a chat or messaging platform like Slack or Microsoft Teams? If so, what gets shared publicly or within team channels vs. via private message?
How does the team use shared calendars? Are there calendars for work deadlines, editorial calendars, when team members are out, etc.?
What gets shared in team meetings vs. email? Are there shared meeting notes?
Are people expected to share back with the rest of the team after attending a webinar or a conference?
Where are files stored and shared, and what are practices around that?
Is work often done in public or collaboratively, or do people typically work on their own before sharing the final product?
Ask about communication preferences—and share yours.
And of course, it’s helpful to ask your colleagues about their individual communication preferences. I’ve worked with people who loved a quick Slack chat, others who preferred the phone for something that required back and forth discussion, and some who preferred email or scheduled meetings, and still others who were okay with a spontaneous video call.
It’s also important to communicate your preferences, both towards the beginning and per individual instances – such as asking if you could hop on a call after the 5th email in as many minutes. Some questions to help you get started:
Are you okay with sharing your phone number? (This may depend on other factors like whether your employer gives everyone a work phone/phone number, whether colleagues are good at understanding time zones, etc.)
If you’re okay with sharing your phone number, is this for certain instances (e.g., a quick text to tell me your Internet went down before our meeting) or can folks treat this like a work phone number and call any time during business hours?
Are you okay with spontaneous phone or video calls? Would you like a quick message to ask if now’s a good time? Or would you prefer to get a request and schedule a time?
Are there platforms that work better for you? (For example, you have a hearing impairment and prefer video calls so that you can use captioning. Or you just went to the dentist and can only type until the novocaine wears off.)
How will you communicate times when you are working but need to focus? (The office equivalent would be closing your door, if you normally keep it open.)
It should go without saying, but since people still seem to do this: If you’re a manager and want to quickly chat with a direct report, please please please mention the topic so that the other person doesn’t have a panic attack. There’s a vast difference between, “Do you have a few minutes to discuss how the presentation went?” and “We need to talk.” (Also a good idea even if you’re not the other person’s manager.)
Is there anything else you would advise for someone starting a new job remotely for the first time? Drop a line and let me know.
The last couple months, I have been thinking about a conversation years ago with a colleague who was hiring for a role and was trying to decide between two candidates: Candidate 1, who had basically done the job somewhere else, and Candidate 2, who was coming from a different field but had the requisite skills if not the domain-specific knowledge.
My colleague really wanted to hire the career-switcher, feeling like this person might bring a new perspective. On the other hand, the department (of four people) was getting ready for a key staff member to go on maternity leave and it was worthwhile to have someone who could hit the ground running and require less training. This is a valid consideration. My colleague also shared with me their fear that, since this role would be their first hire, they would be scrutinized and that it would be riskier to hire the candidate from a different field. So, my colleague hired the experienced candidate. (Which also meant the department remained…well, you could use the same general physical description for every single member of the team.)
The candidate who was hired left 18 months later for a more senior role at another organization. At the time, my colleague was still in the department – meaning there was no room for the experienced person to move up. And so, they had to hire all over again.
It’s an old and common story. It is far from the first time I’ve had a hiring manager share with me this same decision-making scenario.
Why do we keep doing this? I mean, I get why. And true, not everyone is looking to move up. But many people do want the ability to grow in some way—and to have that recognized. Hiring only someone who has done the job before is an extremely shortsighted view.
In this current Wild West of a job market, companies are offering signing bonuses for senior level positions that are typically not in fields where signing bonuses are the norm. I wonder if these same companies are willing to sponsor H1-B visas. (The cost of sponsoring an H1-B visa is considerably less than the last signing bonus that was mentioned to me.). I have asked one company (where a friend works) who has been in dire need of people, whether they’d be open to people who are less experienced—recent graduates or career switchers—given that they’ve been trying to fill some roles for nearly a year now. They were not.
Meanwhile, I know and have known a number of people who have been seeking and struggling to obtain full-time positions that they could certainly do well, even if their resume is a bit winding and storied and full of a wide breadth of experience rather than some sort of neatly packaged ascent of linearity. (I have been one of those people.) We’re talking about people who have been looking for full-time jobs for a year, two years.
How is it serving your organization to be running your people ragged and chasing after senior level people who—at some point—are going to run out if you never develop the pipeline? If you never take a chance on anyone? And if you only take chances on people whom you can see yourself in?
Not to mention the costs of attrition. Does it really save your organization that much to hire someone who can “hit the ground running” if you’re going to have to repeat the hiring process every 18-24 months?*
Forget about the costs associated with recruiting, hiring, and onboarding. How disruptive is it to your teams every time someone leaves?
For the roles that are business critical, what does your pipeline look like? Who will you need in 5 years? And what are you doing in your current recruiting, hiring, professional development, and promotion practices to ensure you’ll be able to have the organizational capacity to take advantage of all the opportunities you’re working so hard to create?
*I did not look that up at all—just what it seems to be from my personal experiences watching and cleaning up after employee turnover.
My whole life, I have been a note taker – not because I have poor memory, but because it is part of how I process information. If someone is simply talking at me (not with me), and I am doing nothing with this information, then there’s a good chance I’m not likely to remember any of it. I have live transcribed interview notes. I have gotten into sketchnotes the past few years. I have typed up official minutes and jumped into the beautiful fray of collaborative notes. Mostly though, I prefer a steno pad and a ballpoint.
Take notes however works best for you.
That being said, there are notes that are for you, and there are notes that are for the creation and sharing of knowledge. Meeting notes fall into the latter category.
To be useful to other people afterwards, meeting notes require a clear structure. They require some synthesis of what had been discussed, agreed upon, and what remained outstanding.
To be useful during the meeting to the person taking notes, meeting notes require a template that reminds you of all the types of things you need to capture.
There are a lot of specific and formatted templates out there. You may have a few or 15 at your organization. But I find that simple is best. It means I can easily create it from memory without having to search for the correct template for that particular client or committee or type of project. Which is really helpful when what was supposed to be a 15-minute check-in with your team turns into an apparently-no-one-renewed-our-domain-registration crisis management session.
Here it is my quick and easy template for all meeting notes:
Having spent enough time working with global teams and generally communicating with people who are not American, I am getting into the habit of writing dates in an internationally friendly format: Month DD, YYYY. That’s still rather US centric, if at least clearer, so you and your colleagues might prefer DD Month, YYYY, which is how most (the rest?) of the world formats dates. If you prefer numerical dates and or will be including this in the filename for chronological sorting, I suggest using the ISO standard of YYYY-MM-DD.
Who was present at this meeting? Unless it’s a very small team or very short-term project, I typically include last names so as to maintain clarity for when a second Sanket joins the team. (Trust me, New Sanket and Old Sanket are NOT good ways to distinguish between them.). If this is a meeting across teams or organizations, I may include which group they’re representing as well.
Basically, if these notes were shared with you and you were not at the meeting, what might you want to know about who was involved in making the decisions? What information would you need to follow up with people assigned action items if you have questions? Relevant details will vary somewhat depending on that context of who’s there and who else will use these notes.
Every meeting should have an agenda. It doesn’t have to be super formal, but there should always be a clear purpose for your meeting.
Many people list the topics or the speaking order in an agenda, and that’s not wrong—but it’s not as effective as listing your objectives. How will you know if the objectives of the meeting have been achieved? How do you know when you’re done talking about a topic or if further discussion is needed? It’s easier to tell if your agenda lists “Choose venue for teambuilding” instead of “Discuss teambuilding.” Make your agenda your guide.
If this truly needs to be meeting and not an email, this means there is likely at least one decision to be made. Include any decisions to be made in your agenda.
This space is for recording decisions that have been made. Documenting decisions is crucial. Otherwise, everyone notes what they think they heard to be the group’s decision, and you end up with a game of telephone except that you were all in the room (Zoom or conference) believing you took part in the same conversation. Spelling out the decision in writing gives everyone a chance to refute or clarify, and helps make sure that you are all agreeing to what you think you are agreeing to.
Note that this decision can change in the future; you’re simply documenting the decision at this point in time. For example, that you’re going to have your conference in Baltimore, Maryland, in April 2020. That decision may have made sense in September 2019 but may not have looked so good in March 2020. This doesn’t mean you may not plan out your 2022 conference and revisit having it in person. Documenting your decisions allows people to track what happened when and why things changed.
In the rare instance that no decisions were made* (was this actually a presentation rather than a meeting?), you can always leave this section blank, but it’s a handy prompt.
*If you decided to punt a decision to a later date or separate meeting because, for example, you needed some additional information, or because a key stakeholder wasn’t present—then you made a decision! Add that here.
It is very common that after a meeting, some of the people in the meeting will need to do some things. Documenting those action items here, along with who is responsible and the due date, is again, crucial as a central source of truth and avoiding those pesky arguments about who was supposed to get your domain registration renewed pronto.
This is where you take notes on the substantive points of discussion. Updates shared. Concerns and considerations that went into the decisions that were made. Any disagreements and how they were resolved. Contextual information for those action items. (If there are any questions that require someone to find something out and let the group know – that’s an action item!) And anything else worth noting!
If you’re taking notes during the meeting and scrambling to figure out where to put things in the moment, it’s completely okay to put everything that’s not the agenda (which hopefully you have beforehand or create together at the start of the meeting) in the Notes section. Then you can take a few minutes after the meeting if needed to put the decisions made and action items into their appropriate spots. Since note taking is often done quickly, I often leave them in the notes as is and then try to rewrite them more clearly to put into the Decisions Made and Action Items sections.
Go forth and take notes! Drop me a line if this has been useful to you or if you have any suggestions.
Last week, I was at #17NTC (the 2017 Nonprofit Technology Conference) and I’m still processing all of the things I learned or ideas that were sparked and how I might apply them in my work or in life generally. But one of the biggest takeaways for me was a question:
How can we improve our defaults?
This was sparked by a session on improving website accessibility for people with disabilities. Someone on the panel mentioned how, in the most recent version of Drupal, they had worked to improve the defaults so that some level of accessibility was built-in even if the organization using the platform didn’t specifically care about or pay attention to accessibility. Most of these things, like offline adjustments for accessibility, could benefit everyone. Otherwise, they were no detriment to the user experience for anyone else.
One of the other suggestions in the website session was that we should build accessibility into our budget and our project schedules so that crossing it out is a active choice. Similar to automatically opting people in and making it an active choice to opt out—which can be annoying for e-mail lists but beneficial for 401k participation.
The day before, I’d been in a discussion with community organizers where we were talking about venue. One mentioned that a challenge was that the space they currently had for events was not accessible for people in wheelchairs or who otherwise had trouble getting up and down stairs. They were raising money for a lift, but in the meantime, they stated upfront in each event description that the venue was not wheelchair accessible. Which sounds a bit counterintuitive, but the organizer mentioned some community members appreciated that the information was there, that they didn’t have to ask. Because they have always had to ask—many organizations hosting events, in leaving this type of information out, made an implicit assumption that people attending their event would not have disabilities.
One: Don’t make people ask.
From the start of the conference, there were efforts at inclusivity all around. When I checked in, I could pick up a pronoun ribbon to attach to my badge. In one look, people could know my name as well as that I use she/her. Other options included him/her, they/them, and there was also a write-in option. There were gender neutral bathrooms. At the opening, the CEO mentioned both of these along with the nursing mothers room, the prayer room, and other amenities that recognized we are not simply session-attending robots. In addition, recognizing that there were many first-time attendees, she explained some common lingo and abbreviations. There were “I’m shy” buttons, for those who were happy to talk to others but perhaps looking for the more outgoing attendees to make the first move. There were Birds of a Feather lunch tables and volunteer-staffed Dine Around Town reservations so, although you could certainly eat with whoever you chose, nobody had to eat alone or had to figure out how to ask a stranger to eat with them in a city they didn’t know.
None of these things are terribly difficult to do. None of these things precluded people from choosing otherwise (e.g. some chose not to use the pronoun ribbons, some chose to make their own plans for meals). But as someone who has come a long way to be able to ask a stranger if they wanted to eat lunch, about what an acronym stood for, and who still struggles with these things, and has watched others stress out about trying to find a place where they could pump or breastfeed, about whether or not they could even get into the building, let alone use a bathroom once inside—it means a lot to be seen.
Two: Inclusivity means nothing without access.
Inclusivity is not the fact that you have taken down the signs that say “No coloreds” or changed your policy from being a men-only club to one that allows female members. Sure, nobody is actively stopping women or people of color from applying to jobs in technology (or any other field). Nor is that an explicit reason people don’t get promotions or aren’t seen as leaders in spite of actions that would demonstrate leadership if only they looked like what we expect a leader to look like.
Inclusivity is meaningless without access; inclusivity is as much about removing barriers as it is about creating the space and opening the doors. As in, not only are we not restricting membership by gender, but we’re also ensuring that this space is actually accessible to all community members for the purpose we aim to serve. If people need to be able to spend a day learning at a conference, they will also need to go to the bathroom, possibly need to pump or breastfeed, may need a space to observe their religion, will need to be able to get in the building and into all of the rooms in which we are holding sessions and events. If we want people to lead at all levels within our organizations, then we need to look for those actions in all places rather than only in the places and people we’d expect.
Three: Improving accessibility + increasing inclusivity = benefits to us all
Revamping your website from looking like Times Square to being less cluttered and focused is not only easier for people using screenreaders but is a better user experience for all of your website visitors—yes. Not having to navigate stairs helps even those of us who can walk when we’re moving heavy carts of equipment or boxes of supplies—sure. Being able to use either single-person bathroom rather than having to (or feeling like you have to) wait for the one that says “Women” even while the one that says “Men” is empty—heck yeah.
But it also benefits us all because we’re getting whole people. People who aren’t spending mental energy (and actual energy, and actual hours of time) on planning out how they’re getting from point A to point B via points F and U because of stairs, or because of needing to pump every few hours or because they need to bring their own interpreter, or because there isn’t a bathroom they can use within a 15 minute walk (as exhibited in Hidden Figures), or because they need to assist their opposite-sex adult child who has special needs in using the bathroom, or because the way they observe their religion frightens some people who do not know them. When people can bring their best selves and their whole selves—why would we not choose that over people bringing only a part of their brain power, a part of their time, a part of their talent and passion and brilliance? If we’re willing to spend time and energy on recruiting/hiring/engaging the right people, why wouldn’t we make sure we could get the best of them?
Four: We will never be completely inclusive or accessible.
Another recurring theme, in the session on website accessibility, and in many others, was to let go of perfect. We may not currently have the budget to install an elevator. Or the capacity to overhaul our website.
But what can we do right now to make it better?
Maybe it’s saying, to our community members who use wheelchairs: We see you. We can’t fix it yet, but we wanted to give you a heads up that there are stairs. Maybe it’s not having a prayer before a meal but having a moment of silence for those who wish to pray, to create that space for them. Maybe it’s considering what will be readable to people who are color blind or who have issues with low-contrast when you’re choosing the colors on your website, or writing detailed descriptions for your images in your blog posts. I remember a friend of mine (who is a quadriplegic) once telling me a story about talking to bar owner about how changing the doorknobs on the bathroom door to lever door handles would make it so much easier for him to get in and out of the bathroom. To which the owner responded, “Oh, that’s it? I could do that.” At a previous organization that only had about 20 staff, they didn’t have space/need for a dedicated nursing mothers’ room, but they installed a lock on the conference room door so it could be used as such.
When we have the opportunities to do the big overhauls, that’s wonderful. But more important is that we try to improve our defaults. Like what if, instead of waiting for people to ask for a raise, we evaluated everybody’s compensation every 6 months, and within our capacity, gave everyone raises who deserved one regardless of whether they had asked? Or asked everyone about professional development they were interested in rather than just saying yes to people who asked about it? What if we simply got rid of urinals? What if the form you filled out to get your event added to the calendar or your business added to a review site asked whether or not the space was wheelchair accessible? If job websites required employers to post jobs with a salary range, rather than employers requiring it of applicants, and to post their policies around family leave rather than requiring candidates to ask? At my husband’s company, it is expected that, if the company pays for you to attend a training or a conference, you will share what you’ve learned with the rest of the team afterwards. I don’t know if that’s policy or just a cultural thing, but that make sense. Whereas I heard another attendee comment on going back to the office and their boss telling them to go back to work and stop bothering them with all of these ideas. Why waste everyone’s time leading someone on if they won’t be able to get into the restaurant, if the highest salary you can offer will not meet the minimum of what they are seeking, if you’re sending them to a training for the sake of checking a box rather than using professional development to enhance capacity, if the contribution people make to the organization have nothing to do with how you compensate them? In addition to being disrespectful and not inclusive, it is simply inefficient. It doesn’t make any sense.
We’re bleeding opportunity cost, and we’re usually not even aware of it.
I’m sure there are plenty of things I’ve not mentioned, and pitfalls with some of the things I have. I’m not perfect and plenty of my defaults could use improvement. I had the awesome opportunity to present at the conference, and I talked about flipping the switch with change-resistors: what do we risk by not doing X?
I’ve always struggled with that because quantifying output or input is easy. We spend a lot of money on education, for example, and money in and of itself is not an answer, but neither is not spending that money. What is the cost of an under-educated citizen? Of a person who ends up in prison instead of in a job? Not just the cost of running the prison or feeding inmates, but the cost of that person’s potential had they not ended up there in the first place? I’m willing to bet it is greater than the cost of providing certain services or programs. Not all of them. But probably a significant number. If someone figures out a good way to calculate that, let me know. I don’t know that the data would prove this theory, but I don’t know that it would disprove it either.
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