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How To Effectively Take Notes as a Team

As your teams grow, so does your collective knowledge of all that you've built together. Managing and documenting that knowledge can be daunting, but it's so important for remembering decisions, creating new ideas without reinventing the wheel, and bringing new teammates up to speed. In this talk, we'll discuss strategies for taking (and finding!) notes as a team.

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Transcript

Yes, hello, everybody. I'm here today to talk about effectively taking notes as a team. As Erin said, thank you so much for the intro, my name is Cassidy. You can find me at @cassidoo and most places on the internet if you have more questions about this. The biggest thing about this, I love taking notes.

In general, I always have a pen in hand if I want to hand-write notes. I've got Obsidian and I use Notion as well. Our brains in general are pretty disorganised. Writing things down is the solution for that. Plenty of studies have shown I'm not going to link them, but plenty of studies have shown if you want to learn and remember something long-term, you need to write it down. And if you if you want to understand ideas, you have to translate them into your own words.

It's important to be able to write down notes in general so that you can remember things better, understand things better, and so on. Beyond ourselves, though, thinking about teams, taking notes is very important. Whether you're writing down meeting minutes, or notes from conversations with team-mates, or even ideas that you want to propose, it is essential for remembering what happens throughout your day, because as developers, non-developers, people in the tech industry, we have a lot of meetings but we also have a lot of individual work, and there is so much knowledge that we accumulate just throughout any given day, you have to kind of be able to recall that, that being said, finding notes is just as important as actually taking notes, because you can rarely, if ever, remember exactly what you were thinking, or the exact words or phrases you were using when you were originally writing down your notes, or your team-mates' ideas. We lose that context too quickly.

How many times have you written code late into the night, and, at some point when you come back to your codebase, you are like, "What was I thinking? Oh, no!" And even not just coding, but what if you are looking at your notes where you might have started a blog post, or added a bullet point, and there is no context whatsoever? I was even looking at some of my notes this morning where I didn't add enough context, and I had a bullet point that just said, "Retirement". What was that about? Maybe I was being optimistic? Who knows! Anyway.

We lose a lot of context very quickly, and so you want to take notes, but you also want to be able to search your notes, and understand and contextualise your notes. Collective knowledge in general is reliant on both the creation of the notes and the retrieval of your notes. If you want your team to have a shared context and vocabulary about any work that you're doing, there needs to be buy-in on taking notes. It can't just be the one person who is really good at taking notes and you hope that they get everything that is in your head. It is a team decision that everybody has to be taking them.

Thinking about making your notes searchable, though, can bog you down as you're writing down everything. You want to be able to stay productive because ideas are fleeting, but they're so, so powerful if they're captured well. I had a team-mate on one of my previous teams where he was very, very good at taking notes for the team where we did end up relying on him quite a bit, but it was amazing where we could say, you know, there is a point where Jason said something really useful in the meeting but I don't remember what Jason said, and he made everything that people said attach to a person, so when he took meeting minutes, you could look for what Jason said, and it was all like the key quotes and points that Jason said in the meeting. It was great for giving meme credit on the team, but also for remembering those ideas and the surrounding context of that. And once again, we were relying on that team-mate a lot.

It reminds me of the somewhat morbid term "bus factor" which I'm not sure if anybody has heard that term. I don't like it, but it's a very real thing, so if you don't know what the term is, a bus factor is would the project, or team, or any context be in jeopardy if someone were to be hit by a bus? Again, I don't like the term, but it's a very important thing to consider. The risk of not writing things down in a searchable way means that the knowledge could just go away at some point. You don't want your team-mates not to take a peaceful vacation or work on something new, or leave the team in a bad place if they were to leave entirely.

By creating notes, and making them easy to search and navigate, it gives everybody a little bit more freedom because that collective knowledge is shared as a group, the collective vocabulary is shared as a group, and you don't have to panic because some person goes on vacation, or just needs a break in general, or leaves the team entirely.

So, once again, because you don't want to be -- you want to stay productive, and you don't want to be bogged down by having to create something searchable, and remembering what a certain template you need to use or anything, you need to remember that you need a predictable system for your notes, and, by having a predictable system that everyone just knows, relies on, and understands, then you can just get to writing down your ideas.

The author Sonke Ahrens who said standardisation enables creativity. There is this awesome book called How To Take Smart Notes, about standardising how you make your notes. If you don't have a predictable easy-to-navigate system for your notes, then whenever you want to apply your team's decisions or ideas, you will end up spending unnecessary energy just trying to find what you need. But when you have common formatting, and organisation, and a shared understanding of how to document things, that allows your team to think, to discuss, to reflect, hypothesise, test, share, more together. And that is the creative work that matters. You don't want to get bogged down like, "Oh, well, we need to make sure this is tabbed in and this is under a certain type of dropdown." You don't want to care about that.

If you have a high-level system that lets you get your ideas out the door, then you can focus on that important needy work that your team needs to do to be able to do not only to find your notes later in the future, but also have it make sense as you're creating ideas and looking for your own ideas. And the way your team takes notes is up to you.

There is no perfect system; there is no silver bullet like "this is the one thing that will make everything work" -- there is no perfect system. But, that also applies to tools too. So many times when I've talked about notes in general, but should reuse Rome Research, Obsidian, or AppFlow.

The tools and the systems don't matter because there's no silver bullet. As long as your teams have shared buy-in and everyone uses the same approach, that's what matters. It might take some practice and training in your team, but when you have that, it's a game-changer, you could do so much with your notes when everybody is following the same general practices.

Build templates people can pull from, have scratch pads, spots, where people can jot down quick ideas and format and organise later. Also, in general, don't treat your notes as if they are etched in stone permanently. It's okay for your notes to ebb and flow. How many times have you had to cross it out and add arrows later. It's the same thing with digital notes. You can change and morph things and link to them and stuff.

It's really valuable to think of your notes that way, because when you do, it is not just, oh, well, it's written down, it cannot be changed. It allows the ideas to morph and move on over time and have a history. You don't necessarily want to become data hoarders with all of the notes. It's good to audit your team notes and document things as being out of date, or you have an archive of some kind -- that is a very good thing to do.

Having that context to someone who might need it will pay dividend over time. Imagine when you have a new person come to your team who isn't used to what your team does, and is still learning everything. If there is a predictable system that the entire team uses, they can get that context on the team so quickly because it's all in one format where, if they want to understand something, they will say, "Oh, well, it's probably in this folder, or under this tag", what have you, and it is easy to navigate and understand.

That being said, there is no perfect system, there is no perfect tools, but if you would like any resources, I highly recommend the following things and people. First of all, Ben Hong, if you haven't heard of his live stream, or his YouTube channel, or Twitter, even, he is a productivity machine. He is the team-mate I was talking about before who is amazing at taking notes, and he gives awesome lectures and workshops, and just details of productivity and how to take smart notes, and that being said, how to take smart notes is a book I highly recommend that helps you take notes in a very useful way.

There is also a very series called Linking Your Thinking, which is helpful for understanding how to link your ideas together. There is a method called the PARA method by Forte Labs which is useful for team notes in general and figuring out how to create a system for your team. Then for tools in general, I like obsidian and Notion. Obsidian I like for personal notes, Notion for notes I like to share. Stashpad is good for scratching things down, and then Bear and Roam are similar to these other tools as well.

Thank you so much for your time. I'm looking forward to your questions, and you can find me at @cassidoo on most things!