Tribute to Dr. Spencer Sliver, inventor of the Post-it® Notes
Author: Laura HsuCPF|M
Translated by Alyson Tseng
The New York Times published an article, in memory of the late Dr. Spencer Silver.
Upon reading this article, the first thought occurred to me was that we as facilitators should pay a tribute to Dr. Spencer Silver.
Who could imagine packing your material box to your facilitation workshop without any Post-it® Notes?
The story of Mr. Persistent
Dr. Silver, an American chemist at 3M research laboratory, was specialized in adhesives. He was trying to develop a strong adhesive for aircraft construction, but the adhesive he invented failed that purpose. Instead, he accidentally created a “low-tack”, reusable, pressure-sensitive adhesive. Dr. Silver was certain it was a breakthrough. He began to hold seminars throughout 3M, hoping he would spark ideas among its product developers.
Years after his inadvertent discovery, a colleague who had attended one of his seminars, Art Fry, came up with the idea of using the adhesive to anchor his bookmark in his hymn book. The bookmark was easily attach to the surfaces but did not hurt pages when removed. Hence, Post-it® Notes were born and Dr. Sliver was known as “Mr. Persistent”.
Image 1: Dr. Silver3M News Center
In 1980, the product was manufactured by 3M, and has become so popular in workplaces around the globe.
Post-it® Notes provides an important choice in Participation Formats in the field of facilitation. Participation Formats could be understood as the various ways and forms used in the process of facilitation to induce reflection and interaction, once the crucial questions are being asked in the process.
If you imagine an extreme situation where facilitators only ask questions but not use any Participation Formats, participants could only go to the default format of an open discussion. In open discussions, the challenge is usually how to track the topics when conversation is being unfold. There is also the layer of what is being said and what is still in the head. If only one person speaks at a time, the thinking and processing in the rest of the group might be delayed. It is possible that you won’t be able to contribute your opinions even if you have the urge to speak. And you might probably forget about the ideas when it is finally your turn. Not to mention if you are shy or unwilling to speak up, it is possible that you sit through the meeting without speaking your mind even once.
Other extended forms of basic participation
Practitioners in the field had invented various ways to overcome the challenges, for example:
- Round-Robin: Taking turns speaking. Make sure everyone’s voice is appropriately heard during group discussions.
- Small Group Discussion: Divide into small groups and then rejoin the big groups. This creates a safe space for sensitive topics.
Nonetheless, there is still a possibility to omit individual/overall opinions in these forms of participation.
How do facilitators work before Post-it® Notes?
I was chatting with my mentor/colleague Larry (Lawrence Philbrook CPF|E) mentioned his facilitation journey when he was younger.
He was facilitating community building projects in India, where everyone lived in brick houses back then. At that time, the fundamental tool for facilitation was a can of black paint, and the usage was to find a relatively flat wall and paint it black. You wait until the wall is dried out, and you get to write on it with chalks.
When he was in Africa, he utilized the recycled cardboards donated by a soap company, using twigs to pierce through cardboards, and fix them on the wall.
Image 2: Gram Sabha, India. Community facilitation group discussion, 1970s. Provided by Lawrence Philbrook CPF|E
Image 3: Western Province, Kenya. Community facilitation: Action Planning Process. Provided by Lawrence Philbrook CPF|E
Long before, facilitators have discovered the benefits of visualization. Visualizing the agenda with chalks, either in written or drawing form, is the former version of visual record. With the help of visualization, the team’s ideas can be fully recorded and the evolution of topics and ideas in the discussion can be traced.
In contemporary times, almost every conference room is equipped with white boards and Flipcharts. With these tools serving their purpose for visualization, facilitators no longer need to carry the paint cans around.
What could be the challenges when facilitating on a big wall/paper?
In the actual practice of facilitating on a big wall (white board or Flipchart), there is always one common issue: Listing and organizing the ideas.
Imagine we are listing the current obstacles that need some breakthroughs in a project. Everyone is taking turns and listing the points. There may be seven to ten points on the Flipchart, and some of them are possibly relevant. If we are to organize the relevance between the points, here are some ways to do it:
- Relevance proposition:
- Have a look at these seven to ten points and think about the relevance. Tell everyone what you’ve found.
- Write down the relevance on the other piece of paper. Number the seven to ten points on the first piece of paper, and then link them to the second paper. Or simply rewrite them on the second piece of paper.
- Connect the Ideas and name the relevance:
- On the first piece of paper, number the items by relevance. Label “A” if you find one shared relevance. Label ”B” if you find the other shard relevance, and so forth.
- On another piece of paper, write down what each item ”A”, ”B”…. means.
Image 4: Facilitating on a wall. Designed and drawn by Laura.
However, when different opinions occur during the discussion, the records on wall will be altered constantly. The board will become messy. With the following steps targeting these relevance and orders, (e.g. orders of importance or priority), or the extended discussions about the solution, you may have to add more marks and repeatedly alter the Flipchart.
Post-it® Notes untangle ideas.
In the principles of brainstorming, we should generate as many ideas as possible and as fast as possible, while withholding judgement. When a group of people gather at a wall, taking turns speaking and recording, it’s very likely to limit what one would propose due to fear of being judged. Self-censorship would make it difficult for us to speak our mind. Also, the speed of thought slackens off when people are speaking one after another and waiting for the scriber to finish charting.
When Post-it® Notes come into place, they untangle ideas. When facilitating with Post-it® Notes, we can give the team a clear focus question, encouraging them to jot down their ideas on the Post-it® Notes, one idea each and encourage them to write down all the possible ideas.
I have experimented with a small group of people discussing for 8-10 minutes. In the same amount of time, you can have 20-30 ideas on the Post-it® Notes while only having 7-10 ideas on Flipchart.
With the placement of Post-it® Notes, the facilitation scenario mentioned above became much easier. The steps could be the following:
- Invite everyone to write down the obstacles and challenges faced by the project management team on Post-it® Notes. One idea on each Post-it® Note.
- Read out all the Post-it® Notes and cluster them into the same category.
- Discuss each cluster one by one, “What is the common challenges indicated by these issues?” and write it down on Post-it® Notes of different colors or sizes. Repeat this to all the clusters.
- Among these challenges, pick out “Which three if resolved would bring the best progress to our project?”
- Follow up discussion regarding the actions
Image 5: Facilitating with Post-it® Notes. Designed and drawn by Laura.
If ideas are freed from entanglement, we could focus more on the flow of meaning in the dialogue. Take the case above as an example, the meaning making focus should be how people see their common obstacles and therefore which obstacles takes higher priority to be addressed. Since the challenges have been written on Post-it® Notes, visualization could help the group collectively connect and move ideas. Co-sensing is made easy.
The “Untangle ideas” effect could serve not only a group but also an individual. When you’re contemplating an issue on your own, you could try to write down ideas on single Post-it® Notes, one idea per sheet. Suspend the notes on the side and push for very different ideas. You might be able to produce a lot of new ideas in the end.
Different shapes and sizes bring more possibility for Facilitation
Now that we have different shapes and sizes of Post-it® Notes, even more possibility open up for us. For example, when I facilitate topics related to emotions and feelings, I write the answers on heart-shaped Post-it® Notes. When they are later displayed on the wall, the team’s overall emotions and feelings can be visually presented. Ever since the manufacture of different sizes of Post-it® Notes, it has become possible to create enough visual impact when facilitating groups in different sizes.
For example, the largest Post-it® Notes on the marketplace (381mmX381mm, not available in some countries) can serve a group around 10 to 20 people. The visual effects are remarkable if writing with flap-tip markers and limiting the wordcount. Normal-sized rectangular Post-it® Notes (127mmX75mm) can serve a group of 5 to 7 people. Sometimes when I have to brainstorm an issue on my own, I mostly use the smallest rectangular Post-it® Notes (50mmX38mm).
Image 6: Different sizes of Post-it® Notes
Anyway, there’s no end to talk about the usage of Post-it® Notes. Unleash your creativity for endless possibility.
Tribute to Mr. Persistent
Dr. Silver might not see all these possibility out of his invention. If it wasn’t for his persistence, we could not have all the benefits in our field of facilitation. His invention which seemingly failed its original purpose has brought about endless possibility in another scenario. His colleague Arthur Fry was also prescient enough to appreciate his work, and even helped find where it could live up to its potential. Same goes with our life, isn’t it? Some experiences that are less than successful could have great potential for others! Same as the saying: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade out of it.”
In the end of the article, I invited my students who graduated from “the Power of Facilitation” series to share their photos of Post-it® Notes applications, and their appreciation to Dr. Spencer Silver. His invention has played a crucial role in facilitation world. Hope that he received our gratitude in heaven.
Post-it® Notes applications from
The Power of Facilitation-Practitioner “Oasis Group”
Appreciation and Gratitude to Dr. Silver from
The Power of Facilitation-Practitioner “Oasis Group”
Esther QuanCPF：Going beyond words, Post-it® Notes are also very useful for art lovers.
Joden Li：Thanks to your wonderful design! The post-its supported the process of integrating the business service with the IT team, and also helped me open myself up to connect with the team and further contribute to companies under digital transformation.
Mango Wang：I’m very grateful for this little moveable piece of paper, which brings our thoughts into brainstorming and inspires organizations to create numerous possibilities.
Nancy ZhaoCPF：Thank you for the invention. These Post-it® Notes could easily ignite creativity for all participants.
Rain Zhang：Post-it® Notes make it possible for every participant to speak freely about different topics, and then share the ideas verbally and visually. They are amazing!
Chunqing YuCPF：One could play with Post-it® Notes in flexible combinations of words, colors, shapes and patterns. They are low-cost, yet efficient, and capable of unleashing creativity.
Dino Wang：I’m thankful for the humble Post-it® Notes, for letting collective wisdom be seen, ignited and accumulated.
Ann Luo：When it comes to experimenting with new ideas, expressing thoughts in colors and shapes, Post-it® Notes are my first choice.
Allen Wang：Post-it® Notes always help you think and help spread wisdom; in whatever way you want.
Can Chen：Thank you for the invention. In situations for sharing ideas and building consensus, Post-it® Notes come as natural as the air around us. It’s impossible to imagine a world without it.
Joshua Yao：We are fully immersed in the ocean of Post-it® Notes from which we could harvest countless insights.
Chang CaoCPF：The real great inventions are often taken for granted. Just like its name in Chinese which literally means convenient sticky notes, Post-it® Notes makes our daily lives very convenient. Looking for something convenient to use? Use Post-it® Notes!
May Yang：Post-it® Notes help all participants to see something in common, inspire everyone to participate in one’s best self and make the discussion space more creative and perceptive.
Leo Xue：Thank you for your design. It made marketing agents express themselves more concisely, think more creatively and reflect on our own annual plans systemically. Your Post-it® Notes are like catalysts that activate surprises.
Hong CaoCPF：In 2019, we used a visualization process with your Post-it® Notes to build up the complete process of an airline company’s emergency safety drill. During AAR retrospective, we fully utilized Post-it® Notes by sticking, adding and moving around. Post-it® Notes led our meeting into a natural flow, and helped all participants see the entire system. Thank you for making facilitation so creative and charismatic.
Tracy Cai：I’ve started using Post-it® Notes since my first job 30 years ago. Until today, when walking into a new workshop in a new role, I naturally still use Post-it® Notes. They are just like the air around us, no need for extra efforts, and yet ubiquitous.
In the end of this article, I would like to share an acoustic guitar song sung by our facilitation practitioner Shujin ZhangCPF, in memory of Dr. Spencer Silver. I was very touched by his song that I decided to write this article.