43 Folders

Back to Work

Merlin’s weekly podcast with Dan Benjamin. We talk about creativity, independence, and making things you love.

Join us via RSS, iTunes, or at 5by5.tv.

”What’s 43 Folders?”
43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

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?

Royce Williams's picture

What worked best for us...

What worked best for us in the past was taking turns being 'in the barrel'. The person in the barrel became the guardian of everyone else's solitude and focus, and also got a lot of cross-training, to boot.

When 'in the barrel', you had the following responsibilities:

  • Triage all of the shared mailing lists and ticket queues, handling it yourself or escalating it as appropriate. (Later, it occurred to me that we could wean people off of monitoring the lists all the time by having the person in the barrel post first thing in the morning with an "I'm on duty" message and sign off at the end of the day).

  • Handle walk-ins. We had a large parking cone (labeled '/dev/cone') that we moved from cube to cube. When someone from Tech Support or Sales came in, everyone knew that you only bothered the guy with the cone -- even if you knew that you needed help from a specific admin.

  • Educate inbound requesters (both email and in-person). If the requester is trainable, give them advice about how to handle future escalations. (No need to walk in for something that needs to be done in a week -- email should be fine; if an email was sent about a major customer-affecting outage, encourage the sender to escalate more vigorously over the phone or in person, etc.)

At first, we thought that the person who's the after-hours on call that week could also be the person in the barrel. That way, people could plan project work around a (relatively) fixed schedule. We learned quickly that being on the stick 24x7 was exhausting, so we staggered the schedule so that a different person was in the barrel each day.

It's incredibly freeing and productive to know when you're 'in the barrel' and when you're not.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


Subscribe with Google Reader

Subscribe on Netvibes

Add to Technorati Favorites

Subscribe on Pageflakes

Add RSS feed

The Podcast Feed


Merlin used to crank. He’s not cranking any more.

This is an essay about family, priorities, and Shakey’s Pizza, and it’s probably the best thing he’s written. »

Scared Shitless

Merlin’s scared. You’re scared. Everybody is scared.

This is the video of Merlin’s keynote at Webstock 2011. The one where he cried. You should watch it. »