The Person Holding The Marker

Holding the Marker (all rights reserved)
I am interested in the politics of groupwork.  Long ago a mentor of mine pointed out the value of 'holding the marker' when a whiteboard is being used to capture a discussion or communicate a concept.  By holding the marker, you get to write your interpretation of what is being said.

Ways in which the person holding the marker can use this power include:
  • Choosing what to write.
  • Choosing what to not write.
  • Choosing where to write each item.
  • Choosing how large to write each item.
  • Choosing when to use shorthand.
  • Choosing to add a question mark indicating a question or that a point was controversial or divisive. 
  • Choosing to add an exclamation mark, underline or other emphasis.
The 'power of the marker' is also bigger than just being about controlling the writing process.  Holding the marker also often means being the only person standing up, giving additional power through relative height, and making you an alternative focal point to the whiteboard.

This whole discussion has another dimension.  When you stand up and take the marker, you make yourself a potential target.  If you are unable to adequately capture the comments being made, this may diminish the esteem in which you are held by the rest of the group.  This can also happen if you do not show respect for thought leaders, elders and other important people.

My mentor also pointed out the value of being the first person to secure the marker.  This is an interesting factor.  If you want to have the marker, but did not get it first, you can ask for it.  In my experience, most people will hand over the marker at that point.  If they do, watch what they do next.  Do they sit down, thus relinquishing the marker?  Or do they stand beside you, awaiting the return of the marker?

If you ask for a marker, a denial can be embarrassing.  If you expect a denial, you could 'turn the tables'.  If the whiteboard is quite long and there are a few markers, grab another marker and start on your own section of the whiteboard.  At this point you could also invite others to take up a marker.

When you join the other person, if you want to combine your contributions, see if you can find the same colour the other person is using, mimic their style (eg, words and phrases or boxes and arrows), and line up your content with theirs horizontally.  The converse is also true - to distinguish your contribution, use a different colour, and vary your style and layout.

You might be interested to know that the mentor who introduced this concept to me was one of the first managers I came across with a whiteboard in his office, and he kept his markers in his desk!