The tyranny of flipcharts
Flipcharts. Â Let me count the ways that we are tyrannized by them:
1. Power accretes around a flipchart. The next time you are in a meeting, see if you can tell where the front of the room is. Â It’s likely that, even if you are in a circle, the “front” will be where the flipchart is. Â As I wrote this I am in an Open Space meeting where people are gathered around flipcharts, and rather than organize in tight circles, several groups are arranged in semi circles facing one person holding a marker and writing on the flipchart. Â This defeats the purpose of a conversation in which every voice is equal. Â Who controls the flipchart, controls the story. Â Be very careful about having an easel stand in the room. Â People are easily silenced and controlled by them at a deep unconscious level.
2. We have to write everything down. Â Having a flip chart in a meeting seems to demand that everything spoken gets written down for all to see. Â This does not facilitate a good flow in a conversation, and it is rarely a useful harvest of a discussion. Â In free conversations, not everything is useful, not everything is weighted the same, not everything matters.
3. Flipcharts are linear beasts. Unless you use a flipchart creatively, such as by mind mapping or the way Jim Rough does it in Dynamic Facilitation, flipcharts are useless linear beasts. Â Most people simply write lists of points on them, in sequential order and when the page is full, they flip it over and keep writing. Â Wisdom disappears over the fold, every point is given equal weight and conversations tend to proceed in linear ways rather than emergent ways.
4. Renting easel stands is a scam. Hotels charge exorbitant rates to rent a flipchart stand. Â It is not un common for these things to go for $50 a day and at one hotel I worked at, the Sheraton in Atlanta, they charged $170 for a flipchart stand with half a pad of news print paper on it. Â NEVER rent them. Â (Look at this scam!)
5. Post it flipchart pads are a bigger scam. If you use flipcharts in any kind of creative way you will have already discovered that the overpriced post-it flipcharts are incredibly confining. Â You can only hang them one way, it is difficult to cut them into smaller pieces, it is awkward to roll up notes at the end of a meeting because everything sticks to everything else. Â Give me a pad of 75 sheets of large white paper, and I’m happy. Â I can cut them into quarters for Open Space topics, or tape them on a wall together to make large murals, or cover cafe tables with them. Seventy-seven dollars for a pad is plain wrong.
So what is a GOOD way to use flipcharts and easels?
1. Put the paper in the middle. Â In small meetings, say in a board room, take the paper off the easel stand and put it flat on the table. Â If possible, allow everyone access to the paper so that multiple notes can be taken. Â Putting the harvest tool in the middle of the table allows everything we are doing to be directed towards the centre. Â This is the basis of the way we harvest in World Cafe and it is brilliant. Â It democratizes the harvesting tools in a powerful way. Â Your conversations WILL be different.
2. Make a mind map. Â Get used to taking notes in a non-linear way. Â Mind maps are much better ways to capture the essence of a conversation because the group can see linkages and watch the emerging whole of the conversation.
3. Use easels to make signs. Â Easels are useful for static signs pointing out times and places, instructions and so on. Â The moment they become the focus of attention, you will notice that they play on different levels. Â The note taker is above the group, and the notes are elevated. Â In improv we call this a status game. Â So neutralize the status. Â Use easels for signs.
4. See what you can do with tape, scissors and paper. Tape helps you make flipchart pads bigger by taping several sheets together. Â Scissors help you make flipchart pads smaller. Â In these three tools you have everything you need to scale your work.
5. Learn how to do graphic recording. The Grove teaches this skill. Â And what I love the best about the graphic recorders I work with is how they quietly listen and create harvests without being a dominating presence in a room. Â even though the murals they create are huge, their presence is small as they are working, allowing groups to focus on conversation and listening rather than “speaking to the record.” Â Also, learning to use basic graphic recording tools such as icons, diagrams and pictures helps make your own notes less linear, more meaningful and more useful in general for a group.
So, banish the easel, liberate the pads, be creative, be aware of power. Â Have fun.