Reducing Wasted Motion at a Conference: Collaborative Note Taking


I hope many of you will be attending either (or both) of the upcoming LEI summits with me, either the Lean Transformation Summit in early March or the Lean Healthcare Transformation Summit in June. See you there?

Today's post is something I wrote that's being hosted on the LEI “Lean Post” today:

 Reducing Wasted Motion at a Conference: Collaborative Note Taking

Full Article:

Attending the Lean Transformation Summit in early March or the Lean Healthcare Transformation Summit in June?

When I attend conferences, I see many attendees do what I do: type away furiously on their iPad or laptop, trying to take useful notes. For me, taking notes is a way to force some semblance of focus instead of letting my mind wander. Others may be doing the same or are taking notes in order to share their learning with colleagues back home. But isn't it waste if we're typing primarily the same content in our own devices?

The past three years, I've attended Eric Ries' Lean Startup Conference. I've taken these notes in a Google Drive document that's open for all to see:

  • 2011 [Editor's Note: Document no longer available.]
  • 2012
  • 2013

Another benefit I've found of note-taking is having the opportunity to add my own commentary here and there about specific talks and concepts–perhaps adding an example from healthcare, reiterating something, or even disagreeing, all while being careful to clearly mark and highlight my commentary to distinguish it from speakers' thoughts.

But all this note taking can be physically and mentally draining. There are times when I wish I had a note-taking partner or partners! Thankfully, Google Drive makes real-time collaboration possible.

In 2011 and 2012, I shared my document as a “read only” view. In hindsight, I wish I hadn't done it that way. In 2013, I set up the document in a way that allowed readers to post comments (or this was a new Google feature). Readers asked about typos, made suggestions, etc. This created an additional, nicer level of interaction.

I invited one reader, Daniel Tse, to take notes with me. It's pretty cool to take notes and see somebody else fix typos and add other notes as you go. Why do this? Because sometimes when you're typing one thought from a speaker, you miss another. I don't ever try to create a complete and perfect transcript, but some speakers share A LOT of ideas I want to get down.

The morning of the second day of the Lean Startup conference, I opened up the document and made it EDITABLE by all, not just readable. I was a bit worried about what might happen, but I really liked this collaborative note-taking thing of people typing together in real time. I wondered, why don't people do more of this, especially at tech conferences? Are people doing this already?

Let's Experiment at LEI Summits

I'm writing this post because I'm curious if there's even a small number of people who are interested in doing collaborative note-taking with me in March or June, and I have a few thoughts and questions along these lines.

Does it work better to plan out, in advance, who the collaborative typers/editors are? Rather than making the document editable by everybody, should we have a team of three or eight or twelve people arranged in advance? What ground rules should be laid out in advance (what is our “standardized work” as note-takers?) Does it work better to have a “lead” (or two leads?) for each talk or session, where certain people have primary typing duties and others help edit?

Should people add their own commentary? Should this be done in the body of the document (marked in some way) or as a comment? What if there's too much commentary? Too little?

Does the benefit of note taking come from having the notes or taking them? I could see this being like a value stream map or an A3 where the benefit comes from the creative process, not just having the document.

What happens if somebody is a jerk and deletes all of the notes? This is actually addressed pretty easily, because you can “undo” such a change (Google keeps a full revision history of the document) and that “bad actor” could be banned from the document. But how do you deal with the unexpected? What happens if people use the shared document to be blatantly commercial or self-promotional? Should they be banned?

Is Google Docs / Google Drive the best technology for this? Is it iPad friendly and technology agnostic? I know it would work equally well on a Mac or PC.

Is it better for everybody to take their own notes and then share them (as a link in the Google Drive doc or in some other online forum)? Are linear notes with bullet points better than mind mapping? Maybe somebody can sponsor a collaborative mind mapping group to work on a document together? It's possible to embed photos people take during the conference into a Google Drive document (or even a video), or we can link to other places conference content is put online.

What other ideas, questions, or concerns do you have?

As with many experiments, I like to ask, “What's the worst that could happen?” Perhaps the document becomes a complete mess, and then I just revert it back to being “me only” for typing and editing.

I think this is an experiment worth trying if others agree. Let me your thoughts in the comments below. If you'd like to participate, please fill out this Google Form survey.

To summarize, I think there is an interesting problem statement here… It's difficult to take really good conference notes, and there is also wasted motion from many people typing the same things. Could there be a startup business opportunity here, too?

What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Mark,

    I have done collaborative note taking many times. I had one specific weekly meeting for a non-profit and the agendas were posted on google docs. We all had the opportunity to add to or edit the agendas in advance. We had rules like bold the important items, put question marks by the items we might not need to discuss… I owned the agenda in this case so I would check any notes and take appropriate action before the meeting.

    During the meeting we all had digital devices ranging from laptops to phones (google has a great drive app) open to look at the agenda. This was a face to face meeting, but could work for any meeting format. We would take all notes on the agenda. We would generally have one note taker and everybody else could make sure what was typed was accurate and would correct or add to it.

    This worked great, and we used this same format every week for over 1 year. I have since moved so I don’t participate any more, but I believe it follows the same format now.

    I think taking this concept to a conference is a great idea. I would probably have a limited number of note takers, and have a bunch of editors, and anybody could add comments or thoughts that were spurred from the talk, but didn’t come directly from the talk in a separate section.

    A standard format could be helpful also for each speaker. IE would each speaker have their own document or would they all be in one document…?

  2. Comment from Chad Walters on the LEI Post:

    I think the idea of collaborative note taking sounds like a good way to collect and connect what is missing from a single note taker’s work so that the completeness of the collective notes document is greater.

    However, what appears to be a possibility is that there will be a lot of rework, checking, correcting, analyzing, and restating…which would take more time and attention away from listening to the speaker. A collaborative note-taker would be listening and interpreting what the speaker is saying, while also reading what notes have been taken and adding his/her piece. (And maybe this is me not fully understanding the logistics of collaborative note-taking.)

    But the logic in collaboration is sensible to prevent everyone duplicating effort. It can’t hurt to try it! (I won’t be in attendance, unfortunately.) Good luck and have fun!

    My reply:

    I guess part of the question is whether it’s “wasted motion” for each person to take notes or not… is it about the process of taking the notes or having completed notes that’s most valuable?

    We’ll see if it’s an experiment that anyone is interested in participating in… even if it’s a handful of us.


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