Ok, admit it. You’re reading this because you want to know the 5 reasons. That means that you’re probably like most IT people and you love lists yourself. Of course it’s not just IT people who love lists; it’s almost anyone who falls into the Myers-Briggs category called “Judging” which describes people who need structure and need to have things decided. Using the Myers-Briggs categorization, most IT people are ISTJ, INTJ or occasionally ESTJ or ENTJ.
I’m a list person myself. You can identify true list people by the way they use a To Do list. When true list people accomplish something that’s not on the list, they add it to the list just so that they can have the satisfaction of crossing it out. Does that sound familiar?
In thinking about lists the other day, I decided to make a list of the reasons why people love lists. Here they are:
1. There are two kinds of people in the world: those who classify people and things into categories, and those who don’t. Lists are for the first kind of person; lists are used to categorize.
2. Lists are logical and make it seem easier to cope with what seems to be an inherently illogical world. Lists are used to create a micro-world that’s somehow more satisfying than the real world. It allows us to avoid confusion by restricting our focus to the things on our list.
3. Lists make it appear that there are a finite number of choices for something, rather than the infinite number of choices that are actually available when you consider alternative ways to solve your problems. If you have a list then you can eliminate choices one by one until there’s only one choice left. That makes us feel like we’ve done our homework, although perhaps if we had really done our homework then we would have put more types of choices on the list in the first place.
4. Lists define the “box” that people don’t think outside of (remember the popular business admonition, “think outside the box”). Once you make a list you seldom consider other factors that aren’t on the list. That’s a good thing if you want to limit your thinking to “the box,” but a bad thing if you’re in a situation where your thinking shouldn’t be limited.
5. Lists give us a sense of precision even if there’s no accuracy. [see my sidebar comments below for more on the confusion between accuracy and precision]
Why This List?
So far this article has been a bit tongue in cheek, but let’s apply the concept of lists to the real world of business and IT. There is a tendency among analytical people – IT people included – to boil issues down to numbers. That works in some cases. When we’re trying to design widgets to do 77 operations per second, creating a widget that does 86 operations per second is generally an improvement.
But when it comes to issues that involve people, or issues that affect groups of people, we need to be careful about the way that we overanalyze the situation. When trying to decide whether to close down an office, there are non-monetary costs that are not given enough weight in the decision. When trying to hire a new worker there are intangible factors that are much more important than a list of items on a resume. When trying to change a business there are social and humanistic issues that are often left unresolved.
There’s a old saying, “when all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.” A list is like a hammer, and it shouldn’t be the only tool in your tool chest. If you’re trying to make a decision and your list tells you that the decision ought to go a certain way, double-check that decision with your gut. How do you feel about that solution? Does it make you uncomfortable? Does it make your stomach tighten up? Does it seem like something isn’t right? Then maybe it’s the wrong decision and you’re being deceived by your list. I’m not talking about something supernatural here; your gut is telling you that you’ve left important aspects of the decision off your list, and that you ought to take those aspects into account. Listen to your gut; it’s the voice of the experience that you’ve gained over the years.
Pick A or B
As a manager I’ve often had employees come to me for help with a difficult decision. They’ll list the reasons why they ought to pick alternative A, and then give me another list of reasons why they ought to pick alternative B. They’ll say they can’t decide.
I’ll tell them, “Pick B.” Then I’ll ask them, “How do you feel about that decision?” Sometimes they’ll say, “I’m relieved, I felt like B was better, but I couldn’t figure out why.” Sometimes they’ll immediately argue with me, saying, “But I feel like A would be a better choice.”
I didn’t pick B because I thought it was better; I picked B arbitrarily to get a reaction. Most people know intuitively what decision they should make; they just can’t rationalize the decision using a list. By arbitrarily picking one of the alternatives, I bypassed the list process and got to their sense of what ought to be done. After they understood their reaction to the arbitrary choice then they could make the real decision.
Be very careful in your use of lists. Use them to help you with problems that truly have a finite number of possibilities and a finite number of factors that can be translated into numbers. Don’t use them for decisions that depend on ethics, human values or world issues. And to expand your box a little bit, always add an item to each list: “other things not on this list.”
Trust your gut; the experience you’ve gained is more valuable than you think. When something feels wrong, try to figure out why. Then make the best decision based on a combination of logic and your experience.
Lists can be valuable, but they’re only one tool in your toolbox. If you rely on them too much, then you won’t be taking advantage of your experience, and you won’t be making the best decisions for your business and for your life.
Exercises for the Reader
1. If you’re a true list person, try to make a list of the situations where a list shouldn’t be used.
2. Make a list of your friends and coworkers who like lists, then forward this article to them.
Sidebar: Confusing Accuracy and Precision
People tend to confuse accuracy and precision. An accurate number is one that corresponds to reality and has been proven in unbiased testing. A precise number is one that’s more exact or has more decimal places, whether or not it’s accurate.
Advertising people in particular know that it sounds more reassuring to say that “4 out of 5 dentists recommend” a certain toothpaste or that a certain soap is “99 and 44/100% pure.” Putting a precise number on something makes it sound more accurate and official, even if the number is invented out of thin air.
There’s an art to putting numbers in ads; certain numbers are better than others. Round numbers like 90% sound like they’ve been made up, numbers like 97% sound more reliable, and adding a decimal place or two like 97.49% makes the number sound more scientific. Is there a real scientific basis for a number like 97.49%? Maybe, but it might just be a made-up number that’s deliberately more precise because people think that a more precise number is more accurate.
I can say things like “here are the five reasons why people love lists” even though someone else might include seventy-six reasons and have no overlapping items with my list. The number 5 is precise and so the list of 5 reasons is precise as well. In being precise, the list fulfills the reader’s need for structure and it provides a satisfying sense of closure. But unfortunately the list may not be accurate at all. Think about that when you put together your own lists.