Four Reasons I Hate Lists

10/23/2013 09:49 am ET | Updated Dec 23, 2013

An executive I was coaching needed to dig his way out of a serious credibility problem with his boss. When he had joined the company 18 months before, he replaced the entire team while his boss smiled and nodded her approval. Now, there was a culture of infighting and it was creating an environment that produced poor results. The boss wasn't smiling anymore. This leader's credibility stock was tanking with his team, his peers, and his boss. During our work together, he stopped me one day mid-session and said sardonically, "I'm waiting for the magic." He wanted me to give him the simple trick for reversing his way out of a land-mined cul-de-sac.

He wanted a list. Steps he could cross off. Maybe something he could blame if he took those steps and still had a credibility hole. Like most of us, he wanted quick and easy learning.

Lists are great for some things: buying groceries, packing for a vacation. But if lists really had impact, we'd see an explosion of positive change every two minutes as people read the latest listy advice.


Most of the really important issues we face aren't simple enough to be solved by a nice, neat list of actions. Instead they require a change in mindset and approach that can take months, years, even decades, to manifest. I made a list of those mindsets and approaches that you need to adopt. And I made a list because if I didn't, you wouldn't read this piece. But just so you know, I'm hating every minute of it.

  • Important issues require reflection. In a world that glamorizes action, reflection gets a bad rap. Heroes don't sit around pondering their situations. They leap into action. But wise people know that sometimes you need to step back. You need to see your situation from above, to have an altitude adjustment. My executive client needed to understand why he had a credibility deficit -- and to really own his part of the problem -- if he was to have a prayer of digging out of that hole.
  • Reflection leads to insight. When you step back long enough, you start to see the root causes of the challenges in front of you. If you're fortunate, you see how those causes might be interconnected. While it might not lead to a magical solution, you will at least see the likely consequences of the possible paths and be prepared for those challenges. My exec client faced thorny choices to deal with the performance problems on his team. There were no easy, painless options -- only tough trade-offs and hard work. He wanted a simple solution that avoided those nasty choices. Lists provide us with the illusion of that simplicity, but simply delay the inevitable.
  • Insight leads to deep changes in beliefs so that the behavior change sticks. Lists are almost always behavioral. My client needed to challenge his belief that he couldn't survive without the problem team members who were creating the infighting. Armed with a belief that his leadership team could figure out a way to cover those responsibilities if those team members refused to change, he would have been able to go after the issues boldly. Otherwise, he would make false starts and fall off the wagon, further damaging his credibility with his team and his boss.
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  • Lists tend to dis-integrate issues. But really vital issues require coherent action across multiple domains. What we do in one area must reinforce what we're doing elsewhere. Otherwise our effectiveness leaks out all over the floor. My client would have had a chance if he had made several coordinated moves designed to get his team on-side -- and preparing for the possibility that they wouldn't.

Lists can make complex things appear simple. But we too often confuse simplicity with practicality. And there's no replacement for hard work whether you slap that hard work into a list or not.