The Power of Lists

Image courtesy of Flickr/Chris Lott

A college professor once shared with me one of the greatest lessons he learned in 25 years of teaching.

“You can speak wisely and eloquently about a topic, describing how it works, hoping to show students the way, and they will sit and watch you without taking a note or writing anything down of the inspiring points you think you’re making. 

But say something like ‘there are really 10 things you need to know about this’ and pens come out, notebooks are opened, heads tilt forward and hands are poised in anticipation of truth.”

List Starter Pack:

Let’s Get Personal

  • Three things I liked best about one of my supervisors
  • One or two things I hate to see supervisors do
  • Two ideas for working better together
  • Three things I like about working in this company
  • A couple of things I don’t like about working here

Have A Little Fun

  • The three best movies you ever saw
  • List three to five of your heroes, excluding your dad and mom
  • Five ways life is better today than it was before you were born
  • Three places you’d most like to go to on vacation and why

—Jac Fitz-enz

We like things that come in numbers. Numbers provide clarity and certainty, a sense that all deliberations are done, the excess carved away and the essentials delivered in a tidy package.

In short, lists have power to drive action when words fall on deaf ears.

So it is within organizations. Think of how many times you’ve seen lists starting at the Fortune500: “The 100 Most Admired Companies,” “7 Habits of Effective People,” “The 5 Things Every Good Manager Does” and “The 6 Things No Manager Should Ever Do.”

There are two types of lists. There are those that come to us from outside, and those that we make up ourselves. The more powerful kind, of course, is the lists you come up with yourself.

Let’s take that lesson and apply it to how we manage other people.

Talent managers talk about engaging and involving people by hiring expensive consulting firms and providing other intellectual resources to help the effort. But I’ve learned over the decades that the best way to engage people is to personally involve them in the problem-solving or idea-generation process.

The same goes for lists. I used to ask my staff to come up with lists to solve problems. The first time I tried this in a new job, I received a rather moderate response. While there were some early growing pains to this management approach, in time it became a fruitful exercise.

This happened for two reasons: The first being that we solved problems faster; the second being that my staff felt a greater stake in the decision-making process, and therefore felt more engaged.

Here is another way to use lists. When we would have staff meetings to discuss issues or share news, I would ask them to make up a personal list based on their experience.

Don’t be afraid to have fun with the list-making approach. Having fun, after all, is one of the healthiest ways to manage a department. Everyone needs fun in his or her lives.

Make your personal list of five fun things you like to do. Then, go do them.