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Yang: Lists Are Great; Lists Can Be Constraining: It’s All About How We Use Them

on August 12, 2013 - 8:31am
Lists Are Great; Lists Can Be Constraining: It’s All About How We Use Them
Column by ELENA YANG

August signals the end of summer. People take the last chance for vacation, and the pace of life seems to take a couple of notches down … for some. So, I will continue my summer-lite writing for light reading.

I live with lists. I don’t always follow them, but they provide both a compass and a reminder. Somehow, when it comes to management issues, though, I rail against lists. 

The “10 best ideas for…,” or “7 ways to...,” or, “5 lessons or secrets…” My least favorite is “6 ways to talk like a leader.” Not so much that there are only “6 ways,” but trumpeting talking “like” a leader smacks of a PR stunt. Why not actually help people be leaders?

My treasured blog, www.brainpickings.org, by Maria Popova, uses lists a lot.  The author calls them “listicles.”  Funny.  I don’t find the listicles on this site offending, and I think it has a lot to do with the issue of framing. In the context of creativity, which is a huge focus of “brainpickings”, the lists open doors and windows.  Hopefully, when we read these lists, they give us clues and perhaps keys to further explore within ourselves. 

In the context of business world, however, I fear lists tend to limit people. In a stressful and busy work environment, when we see a list, it’s likely that’s all we follow. It’s a checklist, a list to discharge obligations, not to open more possibilities. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos famously rejects PowerPoint presentations because people get lazy when they see these bullet points; they miss the nuances. 

Instead, whenever an Amazon employee wants to push an idea, Bezos’ policy is “write a narrative.” This is to help people really focus on what they want to advocate, and how to advance the idea.

Like “categories,” lists have similar effects of constraining people in the business world: We box in others. We sometimes box in ourselves, too, but usually we want to use the labels on others. The more unfamiliar we are with the subject, situation, or people, the more we “need” categories and lists. We think it’s a shortcut to help us to get things moving or done. And sometimes they are helpful. 

But ultimately, categories or lists are only guidelines; they inform. For instance, Meyers-Briggs’ personality types, introvert-extrovert, intuition-sensing, thinking-feeling, and perception-judging, are interesting to explore and to inform us about ourselves and our colleagues. Even if this inventory test were perfect – which it is certainly not – it cannot capture all of who we are in a neat 4x2 space. 

Finally, management is about understanding and working with relationships. Dynamics of relationships, be they about duos, or small or large groups, are fluid. Lists and categories largely capture only snapshots. I contend that a manager who follows all the lists in the management literature is the worst manager. A good manager is attuned to nuances, is flexible, and knows when a list is a friend and when it’s binding. Am I making a list?!

Do you have a favorite list that has inspired you?

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:  taso100@gmail.com

Editor's note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.


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