Wall of sticky notes fuels genomics at Broad

The Broad Institute is designed for collaboration. Visitors will notice walls of glass that promote transparency, “living rooms” with casual seating for informal meetings, and writable, “whiteboard walls” stocked with dry erase markers for spontaneous brainstorming sessions. Some of these writable...

The Broad Institute is designed for collaboration. Visitors will notice walls of glass that promote transparency, “living rooms” with casual seating for informal meetings, and writable, “whiteboard walls” stocked with dry erase markers for spontaneous brainstorming sessions. Some of these writable walls sport chemical formulas or structures and others detail new hypotheses. In the Broad’s 320 Charles Street building, however, members of the Genomics Platform have transformed one whiteboard wall into an essential management tool, known as the “Strategy Board."

The Genomics Platform provides comprehensive genomic services, including sample handling, genotyping, gene expression analysis, and genome sequencing, to the scientific community within the Broad and beyond. The platform’s motto – "Premium, Pioneering, PResponsive" – appears at the top of the Strategy Board above a dense collage of handwritten entries, computer printouts, and dozens of sticky notes in bright blue, pink, green, and yellow. The wall is no mere bulletin board. It is a carefully designed visual management system that keeps this world-class team at the top of their game.

Despite the wide availability of online collaboration and project management tools, leaders of the Genomics Platform value the tangibility and face-to-face nature of the Strategy Board to keep things running smoothly and hold team members accountable. Every Wednesday morning, senior leaders of the platform invite supervisors and managers to meet at the board and provide updates on new and ongoing projects, which can include new products in development, efforts to reduce costs or turnaround time, or novel technology that needs to be test-driven. The goal of the board is to make things that are implicit in people's minds explicit. The Strategy Board is organized by project phase, from “fires” (projects or issues needing immediate attention) to development, implementation, production, and future development.

Justin Abreu briefs his colleagues on a project's status
Photo courtesy of Broad Communications

Centrally located amongst the platform offices, the board is a frequent meeting spot, and team members are expected to update the status of projects on the board throughout the week. “The board is most effective when you incorporate it into your day-to-day workflow,” said Chris Friedrich, who leads operations and development for the platform’s clinical and custom products. When projects are completed or issues are resolved, sticky notes are marked with an “X” until they can be removed and recorded during the next Wednesday meeting. Only in front of the entire platform can team members ceremoniously remove the notes (sometimes garnering applause from their colleagues) and add them to the three-foot-tall stack of resolved sticky notes that has accumulated over the past three years.

A recent Strategy Board meeting begins with a lighthearted tone, but it’s soon evident that serious business is at hand. Friedrich moderates that day's meeting, starting with a reminder to be succinct, because the platform has a lot of ground to cover each week. “When you come up here, let’s not chat about things. Just take off the notes for things you’ve marked as accomplished, and highlight those you need help on.” In addition to providing updates, team members can take advantage of the collective wisdom of those in attendance and brainstorm solutions.

The Strategy Board was conceived a few years ago, when the Broad’s Genome Sequencing Platform, the Genetic Analysis Platform, and the Biological Samples Platform merged into the new Genomics Platform. With the goal of becoming more organized and launching the new platform successfully, a group of managers, including Friedrich, Sheila Dodge, Tim DeSmet, Jim Meldrim, Zach Leber, Danielle Perrin, Steven Ferriera, and former Broadie Jon Stalker, attended a course on continuous improvement at MIT Sloan School of Management led by Don Kieffer, an expert in visual management systems and dynamic work design. With Kieffer’s guidance, the team tested several iterations of the Strategy Board, eventually settling on the project-based format that they use today.

Holding the memo spike stacked with three years' worth of resolved sticky notes, Tim DeSmet listens to an update from Gina Vicente
Photo courtesy of Broad Communications

Today, the Strategy Board seems to overflow, with brightly colored sticky notes scattered on the walls of nearby offices and cubicles — in smaller scale versions that individuals have adapted for their own goals. “That’s how we know the system is effective,” said Friedrich. “People see it as an important approach and it becomes part of our culture.”

The Strategy Board is successful because it helps members of this large and diverse team stay aligned to the same goals. “At the end of the day, as an organization we need to focus on what’s going to have the highest impact next, and make sure everyone’s working towards those same goals,” said Friedrich. “This system enables us to release something great for the end user or the next customer, whether that’s a clinician or a principal investigator.”

Friedrich explains that the Strategy Board’s success lies in human behavior. It creates personal interactions, which enables transparency, alignment, recognition, and importantly, communication. “It forces people that have work that is intermingled to sit together and connect,” said Friedrich. “Being able to communicate what you’re doing to everyone – from senior leadership to people actually doing the physical, intellectual, or computer work – really brings a lot of value.” Perhaps most importantly, Friedrich said, the Strategy Board helps him and his colleagues ensure that their efforts are aligned with the platform’s overall aims and with the mission of the Broad Institute itself: to transform the understanding and treatment of disease.