I’ve come to a conundrum in my thinking and research about note taking that has resulted in the enterprise grinding to a—hopefully temporary—halt. At first, I thought it was just the normal resistance to change. I felt like I was avoiding getting started and venturing forwards because what I was considering was different, unknown, required thought and was therefore work to make happen. I was wrestling with the challenge of theoretically knowing what I should—or could—do, but resisting actually doing it.
What I have since come to appreciate is that there is an underlying question that I still haven’t resolved. It may be unique to me and the work that I do, but I’m not completely sure that’s true. In the interests of transparency, then, I’m going to lay out my conundrum and see where the thought process takes me (and the insights and reactions that you have to share as a result).
The challenge that I am facing is one that lives at the intersection of structure and the creation of boundaries. As I discussed last week, I found the ideas that Sönke Ahrens book “How to Take Smart Notes” quite compelling theoretically. However, I couldn’t decide whether or not the investment in such an approach would and could realize sufficient benefit to make it worth the effort. I was on the fence last week. I’m still not completely sure right now.
My particular issue in thinking about the relevance of this is getting clarity on what goes in and in what structure. That might sound perverse, in that hypothetically the slip-box has no structure, and that’s entirely the point. Despite that, I’m finding some need to consider whether structure might be relevant in some way. This is the nature of my current dilemma.
To revisit the essence of Ahrens’ book, the emphasis and focus of the approach being described (and presumably Luhmann’s slip-box) was content – in Luhmann’s case, the exploration of the ideas and connections that added up to a theory of society.
What I’ve come to appreciate in my work is that the research and reading that I do—and the resulting content that I explore—falls into multiple categories.
On the face of it, my content is the practices that allow organizations to build strategy, navigate uncertainty and attain the outcomes that they care about. That involves an exploration of perspectives around the general areas in which I am working. Within those, there are also perspectives, tools, mindsets and practices that guide doing what I do, and serve as the basis for what I build.
Separately, there are the mechanics of how I actually do the work that I do. Part of that is the overall craft of being a consultant, if I can frame it that way. I am part entrepreneur, part administrator, part facilitator and part salesperson, marketer, promoter and advocate of what I do. That means that I need to engage in everything from how to build a web site to how to manage the appropriate accounting treatment and tax status of online sales. I need to be thinking about my message and how to convey it, and my audience and how to connect with them. The mechanics of my work has to support a theoretically seamless but occasionally lumpy workflow from attracting clients to guiding them through an engagement to supporting them afterwards.
There is a third dimension, though, which is fundamental to the work that I do but is not contained in either of the above dimensions. That would be the content of the engagements themselves. In other words, it is the work that my clients care about getting done that my process and expertise supports. For my consulting, this is where we run into a bit of a nebulous challenge. In fact, it’s the problem that I addressed when I originally identified that most of my notes are project based (and therefore largely archived once any individual engagement is completed).
Unlike most consultants, I don’t have a particular industry segment or market vertical that I serve. My clients aren’t in aerospace or insurance or government or technology or financial services. They are in all those things. Decades of refinement have led me to an appreciation that what I do is to help big, complex, messy strategic priorities get delivered confidently and well. I bring to bear the structure, process, tools and thinking to make that happen, regardless of what specific mess you might be trying to manage right now. If your starting point is an assertion that managing your current challenge in the way you’ve tackled problems in the past is a recipe for disaster, then I’m your guy.
This lives in a relatively unique and rarefied realm of work that suffers under the label—for want of a better one—of “pure strategy.” That’s not to say that because I have this particular hammer, everything looks like a strategic nail. What it means is that I’ve got a toolbox, portable workshop, access to a lot of bespoke materials and fasteners and I’m ready to bring the full breadth of those resources to whatever problem you are trying to tackle.
What I don’t want to imply is that content doesn’t matter or gets ignored, simply because that’s not my expertise. The reality is entirely the opposite; the content is everything, and has to form the core of whatever strategy or approach emerges out of the back end. While I might not be fully conversant with that at the start, it also means that I’m prepared to scale a pretty steep learning curve to build my understanding. My fundamental gift isn’t that I’m conversant with a broad array of strategy techniques. What uniquely defines what I do is becoming wholly conversant with your work, your organization and the nuances of its culture in an astonishingly short space of time.
That content itself takes different forms, depending upon the particular perspective you take. There is general understanding of industry, marketplace, business model and strategic threats and options. There is also the more particular understanding of any given organization in the context of that environment. Finally, there is the appreciation and understanding of what exists today, and the exploration of what future outcomes might look like and the identification of what is possible to do tomorrow to nudge towards those objectives.
Where I have essentially defaulted into a project-based approach to notes (and a blank slate every time) is that the content I work in is complicated and multifaceted. The understanding of any given industry, organization or marketplace might be generalizable. The specific of any organization that I consult with will always be unique. The insights into radio telemetry, astronomy and custom chip fabrication that I learned in one project have no bearing on the optimal orientation of municipal services and structures that I apply in another. Because the general sifts into the specific, it has always felt easy, natural and appropriate to start with a clean sheet for each project.
The result is that I’ve got several domains of reading, research and note taking to navigate, and some fundamental questions about how to do so. The potential upside of that is that I should theoretically never get bored (that’s a problem for a different article). But the complication of that is how to confront and manage the learning process, and the notes that emerge from it. Is this one giant domain of reading and thought dumped into a single repository (which is pretty much the way it all exists in my brain)? Do I separate that out into multiple domains? Should the focus of my notes be on the domain of practice only? Where do the notes about the content I explore in working with clients fit in, or are these ultimately still transitory?
What started this through process for me was the question of “where do I put notes about taking notes?” In particular, if I was to follow the Ahrens’ advice, by reading his book is now part of my literature. There are meaningful insights that I have gained that I should not want to lose. Those ideas should be finding their places on some of the first slips in my box, connected perhaps only to each other to start, but ultimately forming part of an ecosystem of thought that diverges from notes to process to strategies to business models.
That only works if the purpose of the slip-box is to focus on the consulting work that I do, and the practices and approaches I employ while doing it. It is an entirely different thing if the emphasis is on the client work that I’m conducting instead. It is different yet again if it is some overall aggregate or permutation of all of the above.
Each of these perspectives suggests different structures and different boundaries. One giant, unmanaged repository is possible, but it is unclear to me whether that is the best way to go, and one that could potentially result in unmitigated chaos without trying too hard. Separate slip-boxes for each domain might be a possibility, but I wrestle with whether this is a solution of convenience that conforms to my natural tendencies of how I think about my work. Ignoring and continuing to archive the actual project work is also a choice, but it was the moving away from this that prompted my explorations around notes and systems in the first place.
A client deliverable that I’m working on also helped to shine a different light on the problem. The result of weeks of research and interviews, I am now having to synthesize together dozens of stories to create a coherent and compelling narrative that prompts action. I’ve done this before, it is well-trodden ground and I have a routine that has gradually emerged about how to do the work.
Deadlines being what they are, I’m managing this the way that I have normally managed building this kind of deliverable. I am working through my various input sources, compiling notes into a structure that I think will work, and filling out the details as each source provides more context and richness to the conversation.
The challenge is that I’m doing this in a brain that has now been opened up to a different way of working (and as Ralph Waldo Emerson pointed out, “The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.”) There are some compelling benefits to Luhmann’s methods inherent in what I am trying to accomplish.
Those benefits manifest themselves in a number of ways. For starters, my approach started with an essentially pre-defined structure for what the deliverable will ultimately be. This was itself designed to fit the current problem, and not just “standard report 2c.” All of my notes, though, are being built around that structure. Radically rethinking how to structure and narrate my findings would be a massive undertaking, and yet I can see compelling instances where that might be desirable.
As the aggregate notes build to create the deliverable, though, they lose connection to their source. In one particular example, I came across a comment yesterday that I had incorporated into the summary, and asked myself “what did I intend by that?” Followed by “who said that?” Which quickly led to, “does that connect with ideas that I’ve heard from others?” Without those connections, it is difficult to come up with answers without diving back into the original sources and working forwards again from there.
Ultimately, this deliverable will support and connect to others that I produce. Or more appropriately, the ideas contained within it will serve as the structure on which later work gets built. Preserving the connection to where ideas came from provides valuable insight when you confront the inevitable future questions of, “remind me why we are doing this again?”
That leaves me in a conundrum. I can see the benefits of a holistic approach to note taking, but it is unclear whether there is a single whole or multiple different domains of notes that I have to manage. The client and project notes that I viewed as temporary and unique to a project may still wind up being that, but that’s not to say that I wouldn’t benefit from rethinking how I approach them. That rethinking might help resolve the first dilemma, or it might complicate it further.
What I am clear on is that the thought exercise has been a useful and important one. My caution wasn’t simply borne of avoiding and resisting change. There are still important questions to sort out in deciding where I ultimately go from here. What I am starting to confront is the reality that solving that conundrum might require simply getting started, and being prepared to backtrack or course correct as I do. For me, that will be its own unique way of working.
Phil Guerin says
Very interesting thoughts Mark. Some of the best insights come from “ jumping across the tracks” between different disciplines or trains of thought as Edward de Bono said at one if his seminars I attended many years ago. We tend to collect notes by client, by methodology or by industry etc but this may limit us. The problem is how to have order while drawing insights from complexity, chaos and outwardly different sources. I think it is worth the effort. Our consulting institute in NZ has a mini online conference on Crossing Boundaries on 17 November which will touch on these issues but does not specifically address note-taking.
Mark Mullaly says
Thanks for the feedback, and the sharing! I’m truly on the fence on this one: whether to let go of my tendency to categorize completely, and have a single source from which to draw (and make unexpected and opportunistic connections) or to create a fundamental structure that I know exists and might make things cleaner and clearer (at least at the outset).
Still ruminating. Good luck in the meantime with the course! Hope it goes well.
With best regards,