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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?

Merlin's picture

@Nick: Is it just me...

@Nick: Is it just me or does this situation of group e-mailing not sound exactly like a normal mailing list?

Yeah, I know what you mean, and one of the folks I chatted with after the talk said something very similar. He mentioned how he thinks it’s important to keep mailing lists limited to lo-priority and FYI information that would be of benefit to a large percentage of the group. This seems esp. true (and mostly is honored) on many large-distribution lists, but it gets tricky when:

a) there’s a large amount of non-timely or non-critical stuff alongside the occasional huge landmine;
b) there’s no specific ownership or workflow for action items that are casually nested in distribution lists.

It’s that second kind that I was thinking of in particular with this post, but if (as people stated) you have to do anything with 500 emails a day, it’s going to be hard to do much but sit around 8 hours a day, trying to defuse email bombs. :)




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