Last week, a whiteboard saved a conference. Or, at least, a whiteboard saved me from myself and my dramatically underdeveloped delegation skills. By forcing myself to fill every inch of space, to act like a misbehaved child facing a freshly painted wall, I turned dozens of draft-only emails into realistic goals.
There are a lot of posts about whiteboards at Lifehacker, but I think it might have been some time since we reconsidered why they work so well. Another crucial thing to consider: I have a feature post due at this time. So I'm going relay a short story about how a whiteboard turned approximately 110 nervous thoughts into a conference that actually happened.
In organising TEDxBuffalo, I held bi-monthly meetings in classroom spaces at a local university. There was a projector, there were plenty of seats, and it felt like a democratic kind of meeting of the minds. But when you're talking and meeting, you're not necessarily getting a lot of things done. As it got closer to the launch date, I realised I had a problem (and, by extension, we all had a problem). In many crucial ways, I had set myself up as the only person who really knew every task that every department had to get done for this thing to happen the right way. And it felt like no amount of caffeine, no amount of Magic Email Comprehension, could get it all explained to a group of about a dozen volunteers. Volunteers that had patiently put up with my "creative" leadership style but now just needed some answers.
So we moved the meetings to a space that had desks, Wi-Fi and a big ol' whiteboard. And that's how we got more things done, in two workshop sessions, than we had probably accomplished in the last six or eight Standard Meetings.
Writing things down on paper is always helpful. What makes a whiteboard more helpful than paper are a few things. Some are obvious. Some are less obvious but something we all forget when we start working with others.
- Whiteboards are big enough for everybody to see
- Whiteboards make you want to fill the space, and therefore expand and branch your thoughts
- Whiteboards inspire you to keep writing, to keep pushing on what's in your head, because it feels awesome to swing your arms that widely.
- Whiteboards feel less like you're committing to an idea than throwing it out for consideration.
- Whiteboards are nearly impossible to lose inside your backpack.
In particular, for a guy who's not very good at explaining what needs to get done, and why it needs to get done in a certain fashion, whiteboards give others the chance to give you funny looks when you forget to include entire sections of a project. They save you precious mental willpower by cutting the cost of making decisions — you write something, add a question mark, and people in the room can decide on it right then, instead of across days in an email thread. And if you can't draw out what it is you're worried about on a whiteboard, you probably don't understand why it's causing you problems, so you know you have to ask somebody. Hopefully, that somebody is in the room.
I just wanted to thank whiteboards for being available, being relatively cheap compared to, say, project management software, and for helping to make a goofy not-for-profit conference much less painful. You should consider whiteboards too the next time it feels like you're spinning your wheels very fast, but still coming up short of the goal line.