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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?

Greg's picture

I'm on the board of...

I'm on the board of a medium-sized non-profit that experiences this problem. We do the vast majority of our work and communication over a central email list the volume of which is constantly growing. When the communication is fact-filled and action-centric, the central list works great as a way to keep everyone on the same page with a minimum amount of effort. While I get an uncomfrotably large amount of email, I don't feel the need to really digest all of it, just scan to make sure I don't have any particular responsibilities emanating from it and in the process I keep my finger on the pulse of what the organization is doing so I can chime in with suggestions or information that might be helpful. When our weekly in-person meetings come, I already have a pretty strong sense of what the issues are going to be for discussion, and I know if there've been one or two people maintaining radio silence that I need to check in and see where there're at.

The problem arises when people have ideas or tasks come in that don't quite fit any particular person's area of responsibility. These tend to fall through the tracks. I've been totally stymied as to how to deal with the problem up to now.

I really like Royce Williams' suggestion of having one person at a time be 'in the barrel'. When I was watching you struggle with this problem in your google talk, I was thinking: they need a router! They're drowning in unrouted packets! Royce describes exactly the responsibility of a router: send the packets where they're intended to go if they have a clear local destination, if not make sure they definitely get somewhere in particular. In our case, the person 'in the barrel' could assign tasks to someone they thought capable of handling them, keeping in mind how much was on each person's plate at any time, or capture and archive them if appropriate.

It would be their job to do the GTD inbox -> action process. I realize now, that's really our problem in this area: as an organization we're not clearing our inbox and turning its contents into actions. When I have this problem in my own system, I know whose responsibility it is. In an organization, you've gotta pick someone.




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