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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?

Jessica Roberts's picture

My company is small, so...

My company is small, so this isn't a huge problem yet, but I see it coming down the pike.

I think this type of email list will be inevitable (and possibly appropriate) when you don't know exactly what knowledge is out there, and/or don't know who will know the answer. In our company, this would be something along the lines of "has anyone done any cost estimates for soft-surface trails in the desert?" I'm just casting around for any institutional knowledge before I plunge in on my own. I would say this works moderately well.

As an email sender, I have a couple of techniques for getting the best responses out of email lists:

  1. Don't use the list! Email people individually, addressing them by name. That way they can't just sit back and assume someone else will answer it for you. I try to limit my emails to the people most likely to have the answer. (I learned this when I worked for a nonprofit and we were asking for volunteers -- they are MUCH more likely to answer if they get a personalized email than if you send a group email.)

  2. Of course, good email hygeine works well here as everywhere. So, short email, clear statement of what you need, and a timeline (e.g. "Can you send me any per-mile cost estimates you have for soft-surface trails by end of day tomorrow?")

  3. Don't expect great things from the list approach. It's just a fishing expedition. You should still be prepared to call or walk over to a knowledgeable colleague to get quality information, or follow up with the couple of people who did respond.




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