Notes No Longer Belong on Paper

Today’s guest blog post is written by Erin Madden Ramirez, Client Project Manager, PatronManager. 

You work for an arts organization. You wear a lot of hats and time is a precious resource. You’re always looking for a way to streamline your work efforts to make your job easier. So why are are you still relying on legal pads, sticky notes, and scraps of paper to keep track of meeting notes and your to-do list? This is the 21st century, right?

Oh, we’ll never get away from paper entirely, but with the dawn of the cloud era (arguably, we’re in mid-morning at this point), note-taking apps, collaborative workspaces like Slack, and free project management tools, there is no reason to keep your notes so disorganized and so inaccessible as keeping them on paper. That’s not to say you can’t take your notes the old-fashioned way, but you should never leave them there.

First thing’s first, good note-taking can be a challenge. Sometimes, it’s hard to find a balance between quantity and quality. This article from The Digital Project Manager provides a detailed guide on how to prioritize what notes you should capture. And while this article focuses on project-related calls, the concepts are applicable to staff meetings, phone calls with donors, and really any other note-taking situations.

At the top of the list of must-have notes are action items, requests for follow-ups, decisions made, and instructions given. Less important are pleasantries (yesterday’s weather has very little impact on today’s discussion) and any hemming and hawing someone might do before determining their viewpoint.

In the middle fall a number of categories that aren’t always clear-cut. For example, brainstorming in a staff meeting is an important process, but tracking the general conversation and noting every opinion is likely not necessary. That being said, you should be prepared to catch the odd statement or idea that provides context for any final decision or request. Since it’s hard to know in the moment what those key statements might be, recording the meeting is an easy backup solution.

Equally as important as which notes to take is where you save them. What happens to those notes on the legal pad, stuck note, or scrap of paper? How often do they get buried at the bottom of a stack of other notes? Even worse, what if important information only exists in your head? Not only can others not access what might be significant information, but it’s easy to lose (or forget) those notes yourself! How will you remember the next steps outlined for a project? How will someone be able to confirm a decision made or find needed context regarding that decision? Consider plans for the following three scenarios…

The Staff Meeting (using a Google doc)

Goals: record notes on decisions made, keep the notes accessible for all staff, and create follow up tasks as needed.

  1. Create an agenda in a new Google doc.
  2. Invite the appropriate staff members to add agenda items for the next meeting. This could mean all staff members or perhaps only department heads.
  3. The meeting leader reviews the agenda beforehand and reorders/edits items as needed.
  4. During the meeting, someone records notes directly into the doc and identifies action items and their owners.
  5. Afterwards, the meeting leader (or department heads) reviews the meeting notes to make sure they’re complete and accurate.
  6. The meeting leader (or department heads) then create follow-up tasks for others as needed in the appropriate location(s) such as a task in your CRM or a new task on a project.

HINT: Begin your notes document title with the date entered as a 4-digit year, 2-digit month, and 2-digit day followed by a brief description (e.g. 2018-05-15 Staff Meeting). This will allow you to sort and view your notes chronologically. Consider adding keywords (e.g. budget, gala, etc.) for easy searching.

The One-on-One with Your Supervisor (using a project management tool)

Goals: keep track of questions as they occur to you, keep a searchable record of answers, and create follow-up tasks as needed.

  1. Create a project titled “Weekly One-on-One” (or similar).
  2. When you think of a question or information you need to share, create a new task on the project.
  3. Set the task’s date as the next meeting date.
  4. As each item is discussed, add notes in the description or comment field.
  5. Mark the task as complete if no further action is necessary.
  6. When follow-up is required, create additional tasks in the appropriate projects. Leave the agenda item marked as incomplete or in progress so you remember to review it during your next one-on-one.

A Phone Call With a VIP Patron (using your CRM)

Goals: record the important details of your conversation with the patron, attach those notes to that patron’s record for posterity, and create follow-up tasks as needed.

  1. Open the patron’s record in your CRM.
  2. Create a new note and record the pertinent details. (PatronManager users, click the “Log a Call” button in the “Activity History” list on the Contact record.)
  3. While still in the patron’s record, add tasks to do things such as sending a “great to chat with you” email, a hand-written thank you note, or a reminder to call that patron again in two weeks. (PatronManager users, click the “New Task” button in the Open Activities list on the Contact Record.)
  4. Assign the newly-created tasks to yourself or to the relevant staff member and set appropriate due dates.

Learning what information is vital and what information is unnecessary can simplify your note-taking process considerably. Knowing where to save those notes allows that information to be recorded and shared across your organization. Together, they can help your note-taking emerge from the 20th century (not to mention the mosaic of sticky notes on your desk) and preserve information vital to your business operations for the future.

Resource: The Best Note-Taking Apps of 2018 (PC Magazine, January 18, 2018)

Resource: The 18 Best Free Project Management Apps (Zapier, March 30, 2017)

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