Blue Slips

Rick Tucci • April 26, 2022

Is your organization leveraging the most powerful tool ever invented for engaging employees in change and improvement?

Nearly a century ago, a young professor at the University of Southern California was faced with a vexing challenge: How do I engage my students to go beyond simply taking notes and repeating back my lectures to expressing their own, original, and unique ideas for solving problems? 

The solution: Cut up pieces of writing paper (which just happened to be blue-tinted); hand them out to every student; present the problem; and, with no further prompting and no discussion allowed, ask every student to write their ideas on “Blue Slips” one at a time. When done, collect the Blue Slips and randomly post them on a wall for all to see, study, and begin the process of finding solutions. 

Dr. C.C. Crawford (who died in 1993 after a long and notable career as a professor and consultant) discovered that ideas for solving problems are abundant, but only when people are unleashed from constraining social norms and group behaviors. His simple innovation for increasing student engagement inspired many variations on this humble, yet an incredibly productive method for producing more ideas to find the best solutions to problems. And, it even influenced the development of Post-it® Notes!

Nearly three decades ago, we were inspired by Crawford’s method ago and used it to develop workshop methods for engaging leaders and employees in problem-solving, process improvement, and think tank sessions to accelerate results and improve the workplace. We validated that applying the Blue Slip method results in more ideas, faster consensus building, and more energy and commitment to doing what’s needed to convert ideas into action. 

However, we also found that this simple, yet powerful brainstorming method only works when everyone, especially leaders, agrees to follow a simple set of ground rules:   

  1. No talking! (silence is golden to give everyone an equal opportunity to share what’s hidden upstairs)
  2. No attribution! (all ideas are good so no names attached)
  3. No one-word ‘blurbs’! (express ideas in actionable terms everyone will understand)
  4. Everyone in the game! (give them space, time, and tools needed for full participation) 

With the migration to more remote and mixed work environments and increased challenges to engaging employees, the tech industry has responded with a deluge of online collaboration platforms that build on Dr. Crawford’s timeless innovation. However, most of these tools are missing a key component that is essential for leveraging the power of people’s ideas: An equally simple and effective way to build team consensus and move to action.   

Brainstorming and whiteboarding tools, even those assisted with automated Blue Slipping features, get stuck because teams invariably evaluate the merits of ideas too soon, shutting down the participation of some team members, and slowing progress. Just as Dr. Crawford discovered that silent brainstorming spawns more ideas, we found that silent review and evaluation of ideas before discussing leads to easier and faster consensus building on the best ideas to move forward into action. 

Providing a simple framework that allows individuals to sort ideas based on “actionability” (where the idea will need to “travel” to convert to action) before discussing merits, results in faster and easier team processing of ideas. It happens because, just as individuals have a surprisingly diverse and abundant supply of ideas to offer, teams usually have more consensus than contention opportunity, if it is allowed to show itself before differences in titles, experience, and opinions get in the way of making decisions about what to do next.

Any leader looking to tap the know-how and creativity of their workforce will do well to build on the proven Blue Slip method supported with a platform that not only makes it easy and safe for sharing ideas but takes the next step of guiding teams to consensus on practical steps to convert the best ideas into action and results.

Grow more leadership talent while solving real problems on the one-stop digital platform that works anytime and in any place change and improvement is needed.

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