The Sticky Note Organizational Chart

The best organizational chart I ever created was made on a white wall using a black Sharpie pen and yellow sticky notes.

The setting was an office in Midtown Manhattan shortly after the devastating landfall of Superstorm Sandy.

Working for the American Red Cross, I had been assigned to serve as the Public Affairs Chief on the disaster relief operation. When I arrived in New York, more than a dozen members of my team were already there, and during the two weeks I served in that role, more than 50 individuals were assigned to the public affairs group, though not all were there at the same time.

In the midst of the disaster’s chaos, my first task was to organize the sprawling staff, most of whom I had never met. Although our disaster headquarters was in New York City, our job was more difficult because we had crews spread out in each of the five NYC boroughs and on Long Island. Their varied assignments included handling media inquiries, writing stories, taking pictures, creating social media content and performing other communications tasks.

At a quick staff meeting in the hallway, we introduced ourselves and each person briefly described his or her experience and areas of expertise. I reviewed the paperwork on each team member and then huddled up with one of my key managers to draw a table of organization.

I convened the staff so we could review the first draft of my organizational chart. Knowing we were in a rapidly-changing situation, I announced that the org chart was temporary and would expire in 36 hours. In reality, it was outdated within hours as new people arrived and others were shifted within the team to new assignments.

We tried to revise the chart on the computer, but those efforts were futile. After a couple of failed attempts to create an accurate, timely chart, I took a different tact.

With the simplest of tools—a pen and sticky notes—we created an org chart on the wall adjacent to the cubicles of our leadership team. Daily and sometimes hourly we updated the wall, something easy to do because of the simple, temporary design.

The sticky notes worked just fine. Each person could see the chain of command and where they fit within the organizational structure. Everyone understood who his or her supervisor was, and they knew where to go with questions or concerns.

As I reflect upon what we did there in New York City, I’ve grown to appreciate the value of using sticky notes for any organizational chart. In today’s corporate world, everything is constantly in motion. Before one reorganization ends, another begins. Teammates come and go. Keeping up with all the changes can be confusing and overwhelming.

Traditional org charts too often are designed to convey status or rank. The size of a box and its elevation on the page are used to convey relative importance and prestige among members of the team. I’m not much impressed with people who are overly impressed with themselves, and I despise org charts that give insecure people a false sense of their importance.

The only reason I need an org chart is to organize resources so we can get the job done and produce impressive results. That does not require the production of intricate, fancy charts.

For me, sticky notes worked just fine in New York City, and I can’t think of any other circumstances where I would need to organize a team using anything more than a Sharpie pen and sticky notes.


2 Responses to The Sticky Note Organizational Chart

  1. Sue Maden says:

    One of the most important things I learned from a former boss, was to step away from the computer and go back to the basics from time to time. I was trying to lay out a 12 month training calendar, incorporating classes from multiple organizers and business units. She suggested I use one wall of my office to post desk blotter size monthly calendar pages, then use colored sticky notes to plot the classes. It worked a treat! And several managers got used to stopping by my office to see the “calendar wall” for their own planning, which gave me added value as I had additional opportuniteis to connect with them. It was a great lesson, and since then I’ve looked for ways to step away from the digital. I now keep crayons in a jar on my desk.

    • Duane Hallock says:

      I love the idea of using colored sticky notes on large monthly calendar pages. And crayons on the desk will surely stimulate greater creativity! Thanks for sharing, Sue.

      BTW, I just discovered your blog at Very well done.

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