“People who want to appear clever rely on memory. People who want to get things done make lists.” — Peter McWilliams
I’ve used my Two-Column Table method to organize massive lists of information from scenarios to innovative ideas to hard-core research.
Anybody can create a short list.
But not everybody can create a useful, actionable, and insightful big list with skill – unless they know a few tricks of how to organize them.
I’ll teach you that here.
You don’t have to love lists to love what they can do for you, especially, if you know how to build a better list.
You can use big lists to manage your ideas, scenarios, user stories,… anything really.
Lists are actually an incredibly effective way to slice and dice information into useful indexes.
I’m going to share what I learned about building better massive lists that I use for everything from organizing massive catalogs of ideas, to backlogs of scenarios and user stories to designing and driving competitive assessments.
The beauty is, the skill of building big lists can help whether you are using them for work, or using them for survival, or using them for learning, or using them for organizing quotes, TV shows, book collections, you name it.
Big Lists are Powerful Tools
One of the most powerful skills you can master in the information age is building better lists.
Big lists can give you the wide angle lens or the bird’s-eye view that you just can’t get from little lists. (Note – use the right list for the job, but if you don’t have a Big List Approach in your toolbox, you’ll use the wrong tool for the job.)
Information is power and big lists can put powerful information at your fingertips.
You can use big lists to organize and manage massive collections of ideas, insights, and thoughts. You can use big lists to to manage ideas, user stories, and scenarios with ease. You can use big lists to create indexes of quotes or resources or songs or whatever.
If you know how to manage massive lists, you can learn faster, be more productive, turn insight into action, and hack massive mounds of information down to size.
Managing Massive Lists is the Mark of a Skilled Program Manager
I’ve learned how to manage massive lists as a Program Manager at Microsoft.
I’ve had to deal with massive lists of user stories, massive lists of ideas, massive lists of features, massive lists of thoughts, massive lists of patterns.
I’ve had to organize massive lists of people, massive lists of action, massive lists of resources.
I’ve had to learn how to create big lists that are actionable and insightful.
And I’ve learned how to put more information at fingertips than is normally possible.
One of the key abilities of an effective program manager is to manage massive lists with skill.
When People Swarm on Problems, They Need to Manage Massive Lists
When people swarm on challenges, they share stories, ideas, and thoughts.
You need a way to capture, consolidate, and share the ground you cover.
You need to keep a list of the ideas about the problem. And you need to keep a list of the ideas about the solutions. And you need to keep a list of the insights and inputs that helped inform your creative problem solving to begin with.
If you can manage a big list, then you are way ahead of the game. You will have an extreme advantage over any individual or team that does not have a way to index the ground they cover.
You really can list your way out of a lot of situations, because so many situations are more complex than they need to be because there’s no index. It’s like diving into a deep sea of pages in a book, with no table of contents to help you know where you are (or where you’ve been, or where you are going).
You Need to Manage Massive Lists to Keep Resources at Your Fingertips
As part of my job, I research a lot. I already learned to use massive lists to help create useful indexes of things to help me keep large amounts of information at my fingertips:
- Lists of people by expertise
- Lists of resources
- Lists of books
- Lists of quotes
- Lists of ideas
When I research topics, one of the most important things I do is make a list of the terms. I make a list of the concepts. I make a list of the experts. I make a list of the resources. I make a list of the articles. I make a list of the books. I makes a list of the sites.
Within a short period of time, I can find my way around a new topic and I can figure out how to dive deeper, because now I have indexes at my fingertips.
The lists are my indexes, reference points, and reminders, so I don’t waste my brain on ground I’ve covered, and I can get back to where I’ve been, or pick up where I’ve left off.
Two-Column Tables: My Approach for Managing Massive Lists
I call my approach Two-Column Tables, because it’s turned out to be my best way to manage massive lists, in just about any situation.
It’s as simple as is sounds.
I chunk my lists up into a table with two-columns.
The column on the left is my category or theme. The column on my right are the items in my list
Any giant list can be chunked up into themes or categories, and put into a Two-Column Table.
And this is a great way to manage indexes of ideas, scenarios, or user stories
The Key is the Frame / Categories Approach
What makes this work is that you are grouping list items into meaningful buckets.
Of course you could make separate lists. But in this case, the power comes from creating a list where you can easily scan across and see everything from a bird’s-eye view.
From this balcony view, you can spot patterns and you can draw insights, that you can’t possibly do if you spread the information out over bunches of places to look.
To create the themes, there are two main ways, and both ways work.
You can create categories, and then go find the rocks.
Or you can gather your rocks then put them into buckets
In general, I gather my rocks, and then group them, to see what sorts of buckets or categories make sense.
But the big thing to avoid is imposing buckets or categories on your information where it doesn’t make sense (and yes, that happens all the time).
Example of a Two-Column Table of Ideas / Scenarios
Here is an example that I think is really helpful to see. It’s especially powerful for creating an index of ideas.
You can use the approach whether you want to capture everybody’s ideas about the problems, or ideas about the solutions.
This particular example is the result of organizing a large team of people around the world to share ideas on the future of Oil & Gas. This is from several years ago, but we were trying to figure out how we could use the Cloud to create new opportunities to advance the industry.
It’s really a combination of identifying where the hot spots are, and listing ideas. The first challenge was figuring out where to focus, but as we created lists, it was like a snowball and it helped build momentum.
Categories for Oil & Gas Ideas / Scenarios
- Exploration and Development
- Drilling and Completions
- Employees and Service Providers
- Operations and Production
- Midstream Operations
- Downstream Operations
- Profitability Management
- Health and Safety
- Incident Management
|Category / Personas||Idea / Scenario Title|
|Exploration and Development||
|Drilling and Completions||
|Employees and Service Providers||
|Operations and Production||
|Health and Safety||
Example of a Two-Column Table of User Stories
Here is another example of a Two-Column Table of User Stories. Note that in this case, it’s not the full format of “As a user, I want to X, so that I can Y”.
It’s an old list, but I think it illustrates the full power of Two-Column Tables.
I created it by interviewing CIOs and Enterprise Architects at the time, to learn how they would use the Cloud and where they got stuck, and where they needed the most help.
It made it really easy to find repetitive themes and to create a very large map of concerns. When I was done, I shared it back out with participants and they really enjoyed the bird’s-eye view of this big new thing called the Cloud, at the time.
Here is a my example of a Two-Column table of user stories:
Categories for Cloud User Stories
- Awareness / Education
- Governance and Regulation
- Service Levels / Quality of Service
Map of Cloud User Stories for Business and IT Leaders
|Awareness / Education||
|Governance and Regulation||
|Service Levels / Quality of Service||
A – Z is a Good Way to Sort
When lists get massive, the best way to sort them is A-Z. It’s easier to find duplicates, and it’s faster to scan all the items. You brain knows how to do this well.
In fact, the first table I left the mistake in, so you can compare.
In the second table, the categories are in alphabetical order so you can very quickly scan the full table and find the topic.
As you learn to name things better, the A-Z sort becomes more important.
A to Z is just an example, and I call it out because some people make no attempt to sort at all, and that little tiny change can make all the difference in the world.
I think you’ll find over time, you can always create a prioritized list from your base list – it’s fast to scan and recognize what’s more important than other things.
What’s hard to do is know when you have duplicates or where to look for something – if you know it’s alphabetical, then you know where to look.
The “View More” Pattern
I’ve never had a great name for this pattern, but I’ve just called it the “View More Pattern”.
Within a bucket or category, if the list of items is long, then I bubble up the most important to the top.
This helps easily see the most critical set, then quickly elaborate for more.
So really, if you think about it, the massive list, is just a collection of well-organized smaller lists, from simple to complete.
This ability to chunk up information into a simple set and a complete set is the key to hacking your way through complexity.
You can easily learn to handle increasing volumes of ideas, user stories, scenarios or whatever by using just enough mental scaffolding to guide your way.
The Big List Challenge
Now it’s your turn.
Here is a big list challenge for you.
Create your own massive list – your ultimate bucket list — of all the things in this world that you want to do do, want to experience, or want to achieve.
Create your ultimate list of the amazing things you want to do in this life.
Dr. Chris Stout is famous for his big list of goals. Dr. Stout was inspired by John Goddard’s long list of adventures and lifetime achievements featured in 1972 issue of LIFE Magazine.
You can explore Dr. Stout’s big list of goals at The List of a Lifetime.
I can’t find the article now, but I remember Dr. Stout saying that rather than feeling overwhelmed by a big list, he feels inspired—it reminds him of all the possibility and future adventures he can’t wait to go make happen.
John Goddard’s Ultimate Bucket List
The world-adventurer John Goddard was featured in a 1972 issue of LIFE Magazine for his amazing list of adventures and achievements.
Here is a an example of his list, using the big list approach I showed above:
- Explore Underwater
- Study Primitive Cultures In
- Swim In
|Study Primitive Cultures In||
Note: I only alphabetized the categories of Goddard’s list. For bonus, I could have sorted the list items within each bucket into alphabetic for faster scanning. Additionally, I could have bubbled up the most interesting list items, and used the “View More” pattern, too, for an ultra-scannable list.
A Few More Notes About Big Lists
Big lists are the backbone of big dreams, bold ambitions, and epic adventures.
Don’t ever let a big list intimidate you. If you can’t make sense of a big list, just chunk it down into themes that make sense for you, and sort it so you can scan it.
I’ve used big lists to handle hundreds of items and to make it easy to stay on top of what would otherwise appear to be chaos.
I remember one of my former manager’s telling me that he struggled with his stamp collection until he finally organized it into themes. From the sounds of it, he had a big collection, but once he chunked it down into themes, it was easy to sort and sift through.
If you can master big lists, you open up a whole new world of possibilities. Imagine lists of your favorite mental models, or lists of the best exercises for every kind of workout, or lists of movies you want to see, or lists of your best insights, or lists of your best ideas.
You could even make a big lists of all the lists you want to create
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Great article. I have been using the two column approach for years using Excel and it works. I have three major lists for Career, Home and Community involvement.
Thank you. I really like how the approach works on paper or digital, and any device — it’s a simple way to slice and dice long lists down to size.
Sounds good! May I ask sth about the mechanics, though?
1. What happens, if an item belongs in more than one category?
2. How do you sort the whole list in the beginning or later on the new items into categories? Is there a shortcut?
I can think of answers to these questions myself. Still I would like to know how you handle this.
If there is a reason to be MECE (mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive), then I pick best fit. Otherwise, I duplicate it, and potentially vary it, if I can make it more specific in another category.
I like to gather the rocks then sort them based on themes. I find the mistake is to make a bunch of categories that sound good or look good, but aren’t useful or pragmatic or based on experience. If I’m not sure what the categories should be then I do a discovery session with experts to map out the space, again looking for themes.
Thank you very much. I’m going to give this a try.