The What and the Why of Being the Lowly Scribe

In last week’s article about what and why, I used “notes-taker for today’s meeting” as an example of an assignment that an ambitious professional might consider disappointing. But is notes-taker really a demeaning assignment? Let’s investigate.

I’ve been through this personally. I can remember it feeling, on the spectrum from “reward” to “punishment,” like punishment.

I was appointed notes-taker a lot in my early career. They called it being “the scribe.” Being the notes-taker already made me feel bad-way special. Calling me “the scribe” made it even worse. Yeah, huzzah… the scribe. I didn’t like it.

The nomination made sense, certainly. It’s a way to engage the least-experienced person in the room in something productive. And who knows, maybe they made me the scribe just because they thought I was good at it. These thoughts didn’t occur to me at the time. It’s difficult to think productively when your mind is otherwise occupied with trying to feel indignant.

Eventually, there was a turning point. I don’t remember how I figured it out—it’s the kind of thing that Bob Rudzki might have taught me—but it eventually dawned on me that being the scribe wasn’t “lowly” anywhere except in my imagination. The opportunity to be the scribe was an opportunity to improve a meeting, even as the most junior person in the meeting. I realize now, being as junior as I was, it was an honor even being invited to these meetings. Being the scribe was an opportunity to learn from and be seen by senior leaders. It was absolutely an opportunity to grow my career.

How could being the scribe do all that? Well, it’s easier to understand if you think about the what and the why of being a scribe:

  • Chronicle progress. Ever try to remember something in detail from a few days ago, in an environment where new information emerges at a crushing pace? I can’t do it. When I take good notes and then look at them again later, I’m routinely surprised at how poor of a recording device human memory is. When you don’t have good meeting notes, the value you’ve created in a meeting evaporates quickly. That’s a big waste, because meetings are expensive.
  • Record commitments. If you don’t record the task assignments that take place during a meeting, those assignments tend to be misremembered or forgotten outright. Especially the inconvenient ones. You end up having to call additional meetings (expensive) to re-derive and re-assign everyone’s duties.
  • Gather thoughts. What was that great idea that Ron proposed last week? But we rejected it, do you remember why? Yeah, me neither. If it’s not in the meeting notes, then someone’s going to have to waste time trying to recover—or recompute—(expensive) that thought that was fresh in your mind just a few short days ago.
  • Organize ideas. A lot of ideas sound good when you hear them, but then when you try to write them down, they don’t make sense anymore. You don’t have to be a senior executive to ask a question like, “Just to clarify for the notes, it seems that everyone agrees we should do X and also that we should do Y, but as I write those ideas down, it occurs to me that X and Y contradict each other. Would you like to resolve that while everyone’s here?”
  • Identify gaps. When you write down ideas, sometimes gaps emerge. The scribe may well be the only person in the room who’s aware of them. It can be helpful to notice those, out loud, during the meeting.
  • Find connections. Likewise, the scribe is often the first to notice connections amongst thoughts and ideas that others don’t realize. It can be helpful to make people aware of them.

I’m sure I could lengthen this list if I spent some more time on it. But the point I want to make is not just about note-taking. It’s about the exercise of understanding the what and the why of your team’s jobs to be done. It’s about using what and why as a tool for viewing challenges as opportunities instead of punishments.

If you’re a young professional trying to grow your career, practice finding the what and the why of your jobs to be done. Especially the ones you don’t like. Explore what’s different about the what and why of the jobs you do like. Thinking this way may help your whole attitude and approach.

And if you’re a leader, please don’t permit the growth of a culture that stigmatizes your teams’ jobs to be done. Mentor your folks to help them understand what each person’s job really is and why it’s important. Help all your teammates find meaning in their work.

People who understand what and why are happier and make better teammates.





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