Whiteboard Wars: A Plea to “Do Not Erasers”

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Whiteboard Wars: A Plea to “Do Not Erasers”

Yoshua Bengio worries about killer robots. He may have more reason than most, as the A.M. Turing award-winning computer scientist pioneered much of what we know today as AI.  

I came to know of him through a recent New York Times article. What struck me was the reporter’s description of the whiteboard that hangs in Dr. Bengio’s office at the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms.

According to the reporter, sitting alongside a sprawl of complex mathematical equations was a small note:

Do. Not. Erase.

I thought: is this tornado of numbers and symbols and wiggly lines all that’s protecting us from an otherwise certain machine-led demise? And if so, does the fate of our species therefore rest on whether a cleaning crew can observe and respectfully adhere to three words that could easily be dismissed as more indecipherable scientific scrawl?

It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?


Do Not Erase: Innovation Protection or Prevention?

Similarly, in businesses, schools, governments and research facilities all around the world, those three otherwise unimposing words are all that stand in the way of the total and permanent annihilation of formulas, designs, and brainstorm notes.

Fans of the Do Not Erase maneuver may say the point is to preserve hard-fought knowledge, collaboration and innovation. But anyone who has had to face a hijacked board may interpret Do Not Erase a little differently: to them, it reads, “My work is more important than yours.” Because what DNE also does–intended or not–is prevent any further knowledge, collaboration or innovation from happening.

Of course, the big chink in Do No Erase’s armour is the words themselves can easily be wiped away. I suspect many of us have witnessed miffed colleagues deliberately dragging their eraser across a DNE-hijacked board, like a car racing through a red light, possibly destroying game changing IP with a gleam in their eye.


Whiteboard Wars: Is There a Solution?

Over time, this can lead to an all-out whiteboard war where whiteboards are wiped clean either because of a power play or because someone simply thinks they can get away with it. Eventually, it’s time to come up with a solution.

Organizations have tried to evolve past the DNE block by neutralizing the need for it. They’ve tried wall-to-wall whiteboarding. They’ve tried dry erase paint on the walls. But there’s a problem that arises anytime you try presenting innovative people and collaborative teams with more blank space: they tend to quickly fill it.

This can do more than simply create frustration. If they’re dealing with sensitive data, it can also present a serious security issue. Any information marked DNE, because it is publicly preserved, is probably more likely to fall into the wrong hands. This includes competitive positioning strategy. A product road map. A company’s reorg plans.

All it takes is ill will and an iPhone to broadcast DNE-“protected” content all over the web or to simply email it to someone–a competitor, perhaps–who could use the information against you or your organization.

So come on, Do Not Erasers. The time has come to retire the Do Not Erase safeguard, because, let’s face it, does it really guard your work at all?

The truth is, whiteboarded content is never safe. Not from careless deletion. Not from prying eyes. So take care in capturing and storing your brilliance… before stepping away from the board.

Especially if it’s saving us from killer robots.

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