Wednesday, November 4, 2015

How to Plan Your Family Vacation Using Post-It Notes (aka Sticky Notes)

"Doctor Sticky Note". That’s what my family calls me.  Strange name for a software project manager, but perhaps it’s accurate given how I do my job.
In a previous post I talked about how to have awesome meetings using meeting facilitation. And in this post I want to tell you a little bit about how that same type of activity works wonders with your family and with other groups of people when there are decision to be made and lots of opinions from lots people.
Thanksgiving 2011 was gearing up to be great time with family and friends all around.  We decided to have Thanksgiving at my house and invite all the aunts, uncles and cousins to come to the mid-Atlantic for our traditional family get together.  Normally we all met in the mountains of Tennessee, but this year my family needed to stay at home so everyone came to us. It was going to be a pretty large gather and so needing extra space, I borrowed a nice sized camping trailer from a friend to accommodate an extra 5 people beyond what my house might hold.  I think we had a total of 14 people that year with a wide mix of ages.
In order to figure out what we would I conducted the first ever facilitated large scale family Thanksgiving planning activity with sticky notes and a white board. This was the first activity we did after everyone arrived and got settled. The meeting was intentionally planned to be brief so that we didn’t take away from the many activities that people wanted to do.  In the end, we accommodated the shoppers, the athletes, the museum goers and the eaters.   Since I live near Washington, DC, there is a lot to see and do and most people want to take an adventure down town.
The sticky note exercise was conducted in order to provide each family member from the youngest to oldest the opportunity to give input to the schedule.  The youngest was 7 and the oldest was approaching 70.
Since this was a family oriented holiday and because we like each other it was important that we did most everything together. I suppose not all families want so much together time, but we made it a rule in our planning to have lots of "togetherness." Considering the diversity of the group, I used a sticky note brainstorming technique to elicit all the activities that everyone wanted to accomplish during Thanksgiving. We had “Shopping”, “Museum”, “Bake Pies”, “Make Thanksgiving Dinner”, “Eat Turkey”, “Run Turkey Trot”, “Go Hiking”, “Church”, “Sleep”, “Play Games” and a few more.  If you calculate the time from Wednesday to Saturday it was a lot to accomplish in a just four days.
The second step in our meeting was to rank all the activities and reduce any duplicate items so we could focus on the individual things that seemed to stand out as unique activities that required a block of time. Ranking was done using "dot-voting." This technique is used to pick the top items from a list. If you want the top 3 things, you give each person 3 dots. Each person can distribute dots however they see fit. One person might really want to run the Turkey Trot, so he might put all 3 dots on that sticky. Other people might evenly distribute their dots across different activities. In the end everyone can see the priorities of the majority. For families this type of decision process (i.e. voting) might leave someone feeling left out. You attempt to introduce the voting concept and how the process works so people can understand and warm up to the idea of going with the flow of the majority. In some cases the majority rule doesn't work, so you can enable everyone to pick a "must have" activity and it will happen even if an activity has only one individual who wants to do it. If you use the "must have" decision tool, it's almost always the case that many "must have" activities are shared by many of the individuals and only a small fraction of activities are only selected by a single person. As for the mechanics of "dot voting", If you don't have sticky dots, simply use a marker for each person and have them make ink dots or put their initials on the sticky not they want to vote for.
The third step was creation of calendar on a whiteboard where we divided up the days into 4 parts.  Early morning, mid-day, afternoon and evening.   We labelled each column with a day of the week starting from Wednesday and progressing through Saturday.  We created rows for each of the time slots so we ended up with a matrix that would be populated by activities.
The fourth step was a fun exercise where we took turns to either put one sticky on a certain time slot or move an event to a different timeslot. One at a time family members would come up to the board and place an event or move an event.  This continued until everyone was happy with the schedule.
Every year since this event (including this year 2015), my family members remind me of how much fun they had creating an active, fun filled Thanksgiving celebration in which everyone helped create a plan and all family members had a voice.
The plan we created together turned out to be pretty practical.  If I recall, we actually did everything on the list. In very few cases a family member or two would say, I’m skipping this. But that was very rare and the family was aware of the importance of some events vs. others because of the discussion during the planning.
The moral of this story is that “The Family that stickies together sticks together”. 

This is a powerful example of applied facilitation techniques.  Several of my family member encouraged me to broadcast these techniques because they found the results amazing and the concept of facilitation to be extraordinarily valuable.
My Uncle owns a successful food distribution business and is considering using these techniques for his annual employee meeting.
My Cousin is evaluating these techniques for use in his medical field.
Personally, I use these techniques every day in my software project management role because I find the increase in meeting productivity to be in the neighborhood of 2 for 4 times.  In other words, you could reduce a sequence of meetings from 4 meetings to 1 meeting.  Or you could shrink a 2 hour meeting to 1 hour.  Or you could get twice as much done in a 1 hour meeting.  Facilitation in meetings and group settings is revolutionary.
Do you find your family stretched to the limit with activities?
Please send me your toughest family planning issues via e-mail. Let’s talk about how to solve it.