Sticky Note Ninjitsu Part 1: Overview

With deadly efficiency, a true sticky note ninja flings one idea after another. Photo by Scott Thuen

I’m fascinated by tricks, tips, tools, prompts, frameworks, methods and all the crazy things people do to generate ideas and solve problems. In school, your English teachers assigned writing prompts, free association exercises, and free writing assignments. At work, you participate in brainstorming and mind mapping sessions. Just about everyone has experienced some form of structured ideation.

I spend a lot of time thinking about creative process. It occurred to me that while I was familiar with various methods and tools for idea generation, I needed to get better at using them.  After all, it is my job to not just generate ideas, but to generate lots of useful ideas.

The breakthrough for me was when I realized that I can make any combination of tried-and-true methods and tools. I could, for instance, combine free writing (stream of consciousness writing) with laddering (moving from concrete to abstract). I refer to these infinite combinations of tricks, tools, prompts, frameworks and methods as creative constructs. I use them to “power up” any ideation – usually by identifying the strength of one tool or method and combining with the strength of another tool or method.

One of my absolute favorite weapons in the war for ideas is the sticky note. Regardless of what construct I plan on using, I always keep my sticky notes close at hand. I have used them to design shot lists for television commercials, brainstorm contextual lists, find patterns in customer feedback, track real-time progress of large productions, the list goes on.

If you aren’t using sticky notes to generate ideas then I hope this guide will get you excited to start! Even if you’re a veteran note ninja, you can use this guide to hone your sticky note skills.

Let’s look at some of the benefits:

You can essentially design or shift from one construct to another on the fly. Each input can be moved to new spatial relationships with other inputs. Trial and error becomes easier. New paths and connections become clearer. Have you ever rearranged a room in your house? Your idea may look great in your head but when you actually move the furniture you realize it isn’t at all what you imagined.

Sticky notes allow you to do high-resolution brainstorming. What do I mean by that? If you consider the amount of data you can display on a computer screen at a glance without scrolling, you have very low data density or resolution (anyone who uses GANTT charts knows this limitation well). Now consider how much data you can display and “see” at a glance if you were able to fill an entire wall in your home or office with data. Boom! Instant hi-res display!

Sticky notes can be pre-populated prior to ideation with contextual inputs. Participants can simultaneously write down ideas as they come without interrupting the current discussion (We’ll dive into the Crawford slip method later) or wait for a facilitator to record their input and risk losing the thought.

It is amazing how much easier it is to facilitate a group ideation when everyone can get up and post a new input, move an input, take an input down, or see how many other people were actually thinking the same thing!


Five guidelines for making your notes more effective

In order to make the most of the sticky note as an ideation tool, follow these five guidelines. You can carry these guidelines across all of the constructs I’ll discuss later in the series. Remember, guidelines are not rules! Break ‘em, change ‘em, shape ‘em and make ‘em effective for you.

One input per note.
Think of the note as a magic container that can hold anything. Thoughts, ideas, people, places, objects, hopes, fears, questions, answers, wishes, regrets. But it can only hold one of anything.

Write bold.
No, I’m not speaking figuratively here. I mean use a marker (Sharpies are my choice) and write in bold letters so you can step back and still read it.

Be brief.
Let’s face it. You’re writing on a 3×3 slip of paper with a chunky marker. Brevity is essential but it is also useful in that it forces you to keep the input to its most basic and honest form. Detail now is the enemy of idea generation.

Be clear.
Brief doesn’t mean cryptic. You and others need to be able to look at the note and know exactly what input it contains.

Record everything.
I shudder to think of all the missed connections; the synapses that failed to fire because a facilitator or participant didn’t capture an input because it was “off-topic” or brushed off as “something we’ve already considered”. Record everything means exactly that. If in the course of your ideation you find that have a whole bucket full of sticky notes that are off-topic then congratulations! You just had a successful ideation.


What you’ll need to get started:

Sure, the light yellow 3×3 standard issue notes work fine. But if you really want to start flinging ideas against the wall with deadly, ninja-like efficiency then you really need to have a variety of sizes and colors.

Here is what I go into battle with:

3×3 in stickies in assorted colors
Multiple colors allow you to assign visual values to your inputs (e.g. green = actionable items)

2.5×2 ft. Large white sticky pages
By posting your small sticky notes to the large sticky notes you can take the construct with you. You can also use the large sticky notes as buckets for grouping related notes.

Sharpies – assorted colors
Once again, colors can be used to categorize and assign value. The more variables you can create, the great flexibility you have in developing your constructs.

Well done grasshopper! Stick with me. If you haven’t already, sign up to receive an email notification when Sticky Note Ninjitsu Part 2: Sticky Note Constructs becomes available.

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    About Kevin Tobosa

    Creative strategist and author of, a blog for everyone seeking tools and techniques for super-charging creative output.

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