Workspace: Three Reasons to Avoid Lists

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1. They are lists. 2. See previous item. 3. Read below.

By Alison Maitland

Three Reasons to Avoid Lists

Alison Maitland is co-author of Future Work and Why Women Mean Business. A former longtime writer and editor for the Financial Times, she directs The Conference Board's Council for Diversity in Business and is a senior visiting fellow at Cass Business School, London. She can be reached via alisonmaitland.com.

Alison MaitlandI am being stalked by numbers. They peer out of my inbox and gather uninvited in my LinkedIn group alerts. Most are single digits, which I can cope with, but occasionally they climb into double figures, as if determined to cause maximum confusion and distress.

I'm talking about the numbered lists of advice on management, leadership, and careers that have reached epidemic proportions on the Internet. Here is a random list of the lists I have encountered recently, mostly in blog posts:

I usually discard information like this without reading it. Many of these lists strike me as ridiculous—not helped by the overuse of capital letters in the headlines. The more widespread they become, the less credible they are. If the essential tips for leaders can come in 3s or 7s or 15s, then it seems that these numbers have been plucked from the air. Good leadership and management require self-knowledge, thoughtfulness, persistence, adaptability, courage, decisiveness, and integrity. These cannot be gained by spending two minutes skimming through seventeen apparently randomly arranged tips.

Some lists of advice are undoubtedly useful, even life-saving, such as the step-by-step safety checks the aircrew does before taking off and landing, or the essential measures to assist someone who is having a heart attack. Numbering the steps, or initializing them to create an acronym, can be helpful in memorizing the key points and their order. But in management, this is surely limiting. If you're told that you only have to follow these particular three steps to become a sustainable leader, for example, then you're relieved of the responsibility to question and think more deeply about human nature and leadership.

Numbered lists of dos and don'ts are nothing new. They were probably around before the Ten Commandments. Today, though, everyone is jumping on the bandwagon, littering social media with numerals. But as much as these numbers turn me off, they turn on a lot of other people. It turns out that, in the BuzzFeed era, PR and marketing people are widely recommending that their clients use numbered lists to catch busy people's eyes amid the plethora of competing content. Andy Crestodina, a Web strategist and co-founder of Orbit Media, which specializes in digital design and marketing, says lists are irresistible to click on and drive traffic.

“They get more common where the competition is more intense,” he explains. “Marketers are competing for any kind of attention. And online, everybody is just a few clicks from every other website. We send out newsletters, and the most popular ones always have a number in the subject line.”

He demonstrates his point with a list of three reasons why lists work well:

  1. They set an expectation about length before you click on them. Visitors to websites like to know what they're signing up for. A list tells you the content can be scanned easily.
  2. A story or article might have one idea, which may not be useful to you, but you won't know until you've read the whole thing. If you scan a list of ten things, and only two are useful, it's not such a waste of time.
  3. Numerals are visually prominent in rows of letters.

Interesting, but I'm not budging.

Crestodina, in fact, says he prefers writing stories to compiling lists in his blogs because they are more engaging, even though “getting people to read them is more of a challenge.” Lists start with a structure—in this case, a number—and then add the substance, whereas a story or case study starts with the substance and then adds the structure. “List writers are just curating content—they're not writing,” he says. “You're not driven to reveal a truth when compiling a list.”

One motivation behind numbered lists is to sound authoritative, indicating that the consultant or author has sorted through all the available evidence and extracted the essentials. But such lists usually fail the evidence test, says Rob Briner, professor of organizational psychology at the University of Bath School of Management. He adds, “It's rare for the author of a list to explain the evidence for selecting these five or seven or nine pieces of advice rather than others. What's the evidence that these five are the most important? Often they're not. It's just meant to appeal.”

Some numbers appeal more than others. Michael Pearn, an author and consultant, has done a great service by creating a database of management models and theories based on numbers. You can search by number, author, or theme. “Wander through it and see what turns up,” invites Pearn humorously. “Explore at random and discover the ten most powerful two-letter words, or the seven S's of self-managed learning, or the thirteen thinking tools of the world's most creative people.”

I was disappointed to find that two is not a popular number, as I like Douglas McGregor's two-factor theory of motivation. (It's clear, believable, and short.) Three, four, and five are much more heavily used, but seven comes out on top—as in Stephen Covey's classic, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Shorter lists are easier to memorize, and odd numbers are more appealing aesthetically. English gardeners and French florists will tell you that it's better to plant, or give, seven roses than six or eight. If it looks more authentic in nature, perhaps it sounds more authentic in management books. Or is it that odd numbers play to our gullibility, as with the age-old trick of pricing an item at $99.99 instead of $100?

When it comes to lists designed to be comprehensive collections, larger round numbers such as 10, 20, 50 or 100 dominate. But the longer the list, and the stranger the number, the less believable I find them. In Pearn's database, I came across Robert Slater's book 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch. I wonder what happened to the thirtieth secret? I also discovered a 2001 Tom Peters article about “50 ways of being a leader in freaked-out times.” This reminds me irresistibly of Paul Simon's song “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” If you're a Simon fan, you'll know that he keeps it short, actually only mentioning five or six ways, and leaves the rest to the imagination. There's style.

There remains the question of why seven is so popular. In 1956, psychologist George Miller wrote a paper arguing that seven was “the magical number” in terms of our capacity to process information. He actually said “seven, plus or minus two,” but seven stuck and spread. However, the consensus now is that humans can best store only four chunks in short-term memory tasks, according to an article by Gordon Parker, professor of psychiatry at the University of New South Wales. If you really must impress with a list of management advice, keep it to four. That is, unless you are doing it in Mandarin, where it is best avoided because “four” sounds like “death.”

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