List-Making As A Tool Of Thought Leadership

A creative technique to find new ideas.

As a consultant or advisor, you are hired for your ideas. They the dorsal spine of your business. Without your ideas, you can't effectively help your clients.

The right ideas form the basis of your offerings. They are present in your blog posts, books, and public talks. They help you get noticed, build interest in your services, and earn trust from your prospects.

A large portion of your success lies in the quality of your ideas. And if you've been consulting for a while, you probably carry at least a couple of valuable ideas with you. With that said, there's a common challenge we all need to face.

You can't promote the same ideas forever.

There are two reasons why it is true:

  1. Your ideas can become less effective over time. Things change: how your clients work, their needs and challenges, the economics of your industry, best practices, new technology. What once worked might stop working.
  2. Your audience becomes accustomed to your ideas. Even when you come up with powerful timeless ideas, at some point everybody has heard it. Prospects think they already know what you're going to suggest, and start looking for new curious and exciting ideas from other consultants.

So the key question becomes: how can you continually create new powerful ideas and intellectual property for your consulting business?

There are several ways to do that. But one that I found particularly interesting is Mark Levy's technique of list-making that he uses in his coaching practice. In his words:

When you were a child, you compiled lists of friends, favorite movies, and beloved songs. As you grew, you made shopping lists, to-do lists, and lists of goals and dreams. You probably still make lists.

A list constructively narrows your focus. It’s a lens that forces you to ignore most of the world, so you can examine and make decisions about an isolated sliver. A list also coaxes unarticulated and half-remembered information from your brain, so you can better see, understand, and act upon the information.

As useful as list-making has been as a gathering-and-prioritizing device, its worth is amplified when you use it as a tool to produce insights and ideas.

His technique is surprisingly simple: the next time you need ideas, make a list.

It can't be any list though. You want to see your specialty or niche from different angles and perspectives, so you can find new ideas that are surprising, curious, or even counterintuitive. The way you do it is by drafting not only one list but 10-15 different ones - each one with its own focus.

Here are some list titles that every consultant in the world could use:

  • What do I know about (this topic)?
  • What don’t I know about it?
  • What are all the pieces I could divide it into?
  • What are my assumptions about it?
  • What are some facts and relevant statistics to my work?
  • What stories about it come to mind?
  • What images, metaphors, and analogies could be used?

Mark also highlights that some of your lists will be topic-dependent. He shares some of Jake Jacobs' lists (who works with organizational culture change):

  • How would an organization know if its culture is changing?
  • Why do some culture changes succeed?
  • What cultures have sustained themselves longest?
  • What must an organization give up to change its culture?
  • What does it get in return?
  • How do you measure the value of a culture change?
  • What things might be more important to an organization than culture change?
  • What are all the things you could work on to change a culture?
  • What organizations have I worked with that have had a great culture?
  • What things have I done that contributed to a culture change?
  • Can you “lock in” a great culture, or must it always change?
  • What non-human cultures could study that might give me insight into human culture?

Don't overthink it. Once you have a big master list of ideas, pick a handful you'd like to explore. And start playing with answers - even if they are only thoughts or lack supporting arguments yet.

Ask yourself what's obvious. What you've never noticed before. What's missing. What's surprising. What's useful.

You'll start to make connections between lists, discovering patterns, remembering stories. Ideas will form naturally from that exercise. And it will be up to you to examine how you can make good use of them in your consulting practice.

If you'd like to learn more about this technique, you can check Mark's website here.

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