Notes: An Agile Project Manager’s Critical Asset

The Livesaving Nature of Notes The software industry’s shift to Agile project management methodologies has many of us happily burying the wate

The Livesaving Nature of Notes

The software industry’s shift to Agile project management methodologies has many of us happily burying the waterfall project artifacts – the 13 required management plans, comprehensive work breakdown structure (with dictionary) and predefined schedule have all lost favor as useless overhead. The Agile Manifesto explicitly values working products and responding to change over comprehensive documentation and following a plan.

While that is a relief, the Project Management Book of Knowledge (aka the PMBOK, The Bible for all Certified Project Management Professionals) has nearly 600 pages of reasons why these artifacts are important, even critical to successful project management. With the abandonment of these project management resources, what are we left with? While the PMBOK has lost gravitas - can one successfully manage a project without any documentation? 

Without the required plans and artifacts, the remaining critical documentation is meeting notes. After all, notes have always been the components on which the creation of project artifacts relied. While they are ultimately not portfolio pieces (like a collection of approved plans and diagrams), they serve the same function in the case of confusion or dispute. With meeting notes, a Project Manager can maintain a source of record for the project, identify risks to scope + timeline + budget, and keep track of when + where + how those risks were communicated and mitigated.  Ultimately, they become a critical resource for upholding the iron triangle.  They are a preservation of collective memory, as no one will ever remember exactly what was said or agreed to during a meeting without comprehensive notes.   

Now is probably a good time to admit that notes are my thing (if you haven’t already figured that out).  My former boss once joked that I was “building a career out of my note taking skills.” That said, here are my expert recommendations for successful notetaking:


How to Take Kick-Ass Meeting Notes

  • Three-step process: Before the Meeting, During the Meeting, and After the meeting
    • Before the Meeting
      • Designate a note-taker – Aka designate yourself the note-taker and establish that your notes are the primary source of record.   
        • If a client representative is also taking notes, ask that they send a copy to you so that you can compile and identify discrepancies immediately.
      • Copy the Agenda – Add the meeting agenda to your preferred note-taking program (we don’t discriminate, OneNote, Evernote, etc.) and familiarize yourself with the proposed flow of the meeting.  
        • If there is not a meeting agenda, there is already a problem.  If you are not the leader of the meeting, ask for the meeting objectives. If the meeting doesn’t have objectives, cancel the meeting (and that’s a subject for another time).  
    • During the Meeting
      • Follow the agenda – Take notes in the agenda to help keep track of how ideas and comments relate to the meeting objectives. 
      • Become the Court Reporter – Write everything down. Something that seems unimportant at the beginning of the meeting may circle back to become a critical point later. 
        • The ability to determine what matters and what doesn’t is a critical notetaking skill and is difficult to teach, but some lessons can actually be drawn from the PMBOK knowledge areas.  Does this discussion relate to: Scope, Time, Cost, Quality, HR, Communications, Risk, Procurement, or Stakeholders? If yes, then it’s probably important enough to capture. If you don’t know, write it down and figure it out after the meeting.
      • Actions – Identify Action Items with a methodology that works for you (bold, red text, etc.)
        • If appropriate, verbally acknowledge during the meeting that you are tracking a certain item as an Action for a specific individual.  
      • No multitasking! - Do not check email, browse online, or answer Slack messages during the meeting. To reduce the urge to do so, close those applications or mute notifications.
      • Participate – You can still take notes even if you are participating in the meeting, just include a summary of what you said or a placeholder to add later. 
    • After the Meeting
      • Curate your notes - You can wait from 1 hour to 2 days following the meeting to curate your notes (depending on how good your memory is) but after 2 days, things will start to get fuzzy, trust me.
        • Move things into a logical order – It’s generally more important that notes make sense than are maintained chronologically.
        • Identify (if needed) whether the conversation related to one of the PMBOK knowledge areas.
          • If not, it may not need to be included in the notes, but use your best judgement and proceed with caution.
        • Indicate Action Items with a consistent methodology.
          • Ex. Action Item: Person to do this task by this date. 
        • Always include the things you said, they are also important.
      • Email/Post your Notes – Notes that live on your personal desktop may serve as a helpful reminder to you, but lose all business value.  Notes should be posted to the agreed upon collaboration platform (ours is Basecamp) or emailed to all meeting participants after they are curated. Ask that each participant reviews the notes.
        • 9 out of 10 times, no one will respond to your request for review, but this remains a critical step to establishing your meeting notes as the source of record. 
        • If someone does come up with an edit or a contradiction they would like to make, open a discussion on that topic under a new thread to get clarity and alignment on discrepancy.


Take Initiative...and Then Take Notes

If you find yourself in a meeting and don’t know why you’re there, take notes. If there is not a designated note-taker, congratulations - you are now the designated note-taker!  If someone is already in this role, send your notes to them later, it’s always helpful to see what others captured, and now you know how!

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