We spend a lot of time in meetings. We waste a lot of time in meetings. What if there was a technology that could cause meetings to advance collective thinking, align meeting participants, increase satisfaction in how the meeting was run, and radically enhance organizational learning?

And what if this valuable technology cost less than a dollar, was available everywhere, and was simple to use? Interested? The technology I am talking about is (drum roll please) butcher paper.

A low tech solution for a common challenge.

I’ll explain, but first a disclaimer. In the late 1980s, I was part of a team at IBM focused on developing technology to support meetings. I spent a lot of money and developed a few pretty cool products. I am not against PowerPoint, collaborative Google documents, Prezi, and some of the neat computer applications that support modern meetings. These applications can be used in some circumstances to enrich and enhance meetings. Much is also known now about how we misuse these technologies. But that is another article for another day.

Here I am narrowly focused on the awesome power of a 30′ piece of butcher paper hung on a wall with all meeting participants equipped with some fresh markers. Instead of looking across the table at each other, participants are looking at the same thing and creating something together. Think of the paper as a shared space for shared creation.

Your short-term memory does the heavy lifting in meetings.

Here is the science. In the 1950s, cognitive psychologist George Miller put forward the idea that humans can only “hold” seven things (plus or minus two) in their short-term memory (STM) at one time. As a new thought or image comes in, an old item gets pushed out of your memory.

Think about when you’re in a meeting. You rely on your STM to process everything you’re experiencing. In a two-hour meeting, you and the other participants are considering literally hundreds of things. At any one point, each participant is processing between five and nine things, but they may not be the same things you or their peers are considering. This causes fragmentation in the group, and fragmentation erodes power and promotes non-value added arguments.

But when the group is huddled around a piece of butcher paper, the paper acts as the group’s “corporate memory.” Unlike with PowerPoint or other computer documents, there are no “next slide” or “scroll up and down” issues. As participants all draw and write their thoughts on the paper, their thinking becomes holistic, explicit, and persistent.

The paper itself becomes the STM for the group, and it is not bound by the “seven, plus or minus two” rule. A simple smartphone app like FaceTime can make these artifacts available to remote participants, and photographs of the butcher paper can make the thinking available anytime, anywhere.

Help your memory and improve collaboration at the same time.

So here is the hack. The next time you are running a meeting, any meeting, find a space with a flat wall and cover it with paper. Get some good markers. State the intended outcomes of the meeting clearly, and let the thinking begin. Encourage people to engage directly with the paper to let their thoughts be known in the form of words, diagrams, and pictures.

Don’t worry about the artistic quality of what is captured. Watch as the thinking blooms right in front of the group. See their joy in making something together. And at the end of every meeting, write down what outcomes were achieved together.


First published on: Inc.com