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Flat-pack development. The tyranny of lists.

Lists are compelling.  Especially those associated with our own personal development.  And even though I think that, deep down, we know most of the lists promising “six steps to…” or “four things you need to know about…” rarely offer us the answers we seek, we can’t help but be drawn towards them in case they are the elusive one that does!  These quick-fix, life-hack lists are so compelling that there are many articles on the internet suggesting that publishing them is the best way of attracting traffic to your blog.

This compulsion reaches way beyond the written word too.  Sometimes if I’m giving a talk or working with a group I experiment by saying “the three things you need to know about x are…” and watch as people instinctively grab pens and get ready to write down whatever I’m going to say next.  And, rather embarrassingly, I have to admit that I’m exactly the same. When I come across a list in a book or whilst listening to a talk, I find myself reaching for a pen (or my phone) in an almost Pavlovian manner.  Why?  I’m not entirely sure.  But I suspect it has something to do with an inherent human desire to “thingify” the world to make it appear less unpredictable and anxiety provoking.  If I’m able to turn something complex and amorphous into a series of steps then it temporarily dampens my existential angst!  I suspect this is the same reason why standardised corporate leadership development programmes are so popular.

And arguably there’s nothing wrong with lists.  They are a really helpful method of sharing information or teaching repeatable tasks.  The list of instructions for assembling a piece of flat pack furniture, for example, are very helpful.  But these lists are created with the intention of generating a consistent output based on consistent and standardised inputs.  To ensure every Ikea Förhöja is the same as every other Förhöja.  And they work well.  Standardised materials plus standard working instructions equals standardised Förhöjas!  (With the inevitable variability of one’s ability to follow the instructions and use the fiddly tools provided)

The flawed assumption with these prolific development lists is that none of the inputs are standardised.  Not only is every person unique, they are in a constant flow of transition at any time whilst being simultaneously and unpredictably influenced by their environment.   To believe that following a step by step list will guarantee each person becoming more uniformly creative, more agile or a better leader is like believing a set of flat pack instructions will work on any box of random materials.  However, if we begin to accept that there is no such thing as a standardised input, nor a standardised output, then we start to loosen our attachment to lists and they may begin to serve a purpose as a serving-suggestion rather than a recipe.  A helpful navigation aid for the ultimately messy and unpredictable nature of our lived experience.

For me, my own ongoing personal development feels more like taking part in scrapheap challenge than assembling flat pack furniture.  Instead of receiving a nice, standardised box of materials with a picture on the front, I find myself surrounded by random junk, some of which may or may not be useful.  Instead of following a nice list of self-assembly instructions, I find myself crunching together whatever comes to hand to see if it will be helpful in any way.  Instead of ending up with the product on the box I often end up with something that barely resembles it or discover something uniquely better (or worse) through the process of experimenting.  Whatever I discover is typically imperfect but uniquely me.  Whatever you discover is imperfect but uniquely you.

So, I accept that I am psychologically built to seek certainty and will always be drawn towards these quick-fix lists.  But, at the same time, I strive to remain aware when I am caught in their tractor beam.

And I have made myself a list to help practice this.  The three things you absolutely need to know about self development lists!

  1. Hold lists lightly
  2. There is no number 2
  3. Go back to number 1
  1. Nick Parker says:

    My favourite ever ‘list’ advice is Somerset Maugham on writing a novel:
    ‘There are three rules for the writing of a novel. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are’.

  2. I love this. I love the antilist list. And this quote I might use in my intro to the Strategic Leadership Programme at Oxford.

    “To believe that following a step by step list will guarantee each person becoming more uniformly creative, more agile or a better leader is like believing a set of flat pack instructions will work on any box of random materials”.

    Thanks Stan.

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