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Vox Pop: Managing actions from list emails?

Inbox Zero Tech Talk

During the Q&A portion of my Inbox Zero presentation at Google the other day, an audience member stumped me with a question about how to manage action around mailing list distributions (the question starts at about 48:22).

He said he frequently receives email requests and questions that are also distributed to the other 20 people on his team. He describes a "waiting game" in which team members hang back to see if other people will respond first -- at least partly out of not wanting to duplicate effort or flood the sender. I thought it was a really intriguing question, although I said (and still believe) that distributed email would not personally be my first choice to handle this kind of communication.

Well, based on the reaction in the room that day, I gathered that this is a common dilemma for Googlers. Funny thing is that, since the video went up, I've received a lot of email from people outside the Googleplex who share the same problem -- a few of whom were aghast that I wasn't aware what a huge pain this is for knowledge workers. And to an extent, I'll admit those folks were mostly right.

I do know about the pain of being on multiple email lists, and it's why I've spent the last ten years trying desperately to stay off of them. I also know and dread the poorly-worded action request that requires vivisection with a magnifying glass and tweezers.

But I suppose I never really thought about the cumulative effects that distribution lists can have across a company -- especially given the geometric nature of their influence, and especially if some 500 emails a day must be monitored and processed for potential action items. That's just stunning to me.

So: open thread for you email veterans to chime in...

How does your team handle these sorts of distributed requests? How are you personally managing possible actions that stem from email distributions? Are there success stories for the distributed email approach? Anyone found better media than email for managing this stuff? Do we all just need to make our peace with getting 2,000 interoffice emails a week, and move on? What's the solution?

TjL's picture

This is an interesting "family...

This is an interesting "family systems" issue (it doesn't have to be a literal family, any group can behave like a family).

"OK well Dad just left another midnight email ranting about how much he hates his computer and everything related to it, he can't figure out how to get the pictures out of his email. Which sibling will crack under the pressure or the need to please and be the one to reply?"

The important thing here is that you probably can't change "Dad". You probably can't change your "siblings" (none of whom want to reply if they don't have to). You can only change yourself. So what do you want to have happen

Again, if you're in customer support or a Korean missile silo, this might not apply. If you're one of 20, you can either

1) Reply as soon as you see it and CC everyone on the original message and hope that no one has answered it privately

2) Ignore them and hope that you fall off the CC list of the original poster

3) Check email on a regular schedule, and when you see one of these, reply in a way that puts the ball back in their court to do a better job selecting recipients.

If you want to do want to do #3, here's a template/TextExpander snippet:

"Hey, I just checked my email and saw your message. Since there were several other folks listed there as well, I assume one of them has already answered it.

I may not check my email again today (I'm trying to limit myself to once a day), but if you haven't gotten a response to it by tomorrow morning, feel free to resend it to me."

There, you've responded. You're offering help if it's still needed, and you've defined some boundaries.

I've seen this happen with as few as 3-4 people on a To/Cc list where there can be NO responses because everyone assumes that someone else will do it. Now I've learned that instead of sending 1 email to 3-4 people I'm going to choose one, and if I don't get a response then I'll send another message to someone else.

If you send the above reply often enough, they'll either learn to a) not expect a fast answer on a message which is CC'd to you or b) email you directly the first time.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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