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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?

Scott's picture

When I worked in customer...

When I worked in customer service for a bank this was a major issue, we (the dept. I worked in) did one thing created an "email wrangler" position that had two responsibilities.

1) Parsing. Everyone in the office regardless of department received the same email update/newsletter. These emails contained information for departments about changes in S.O.P.s, meetings, targets etc as well as question for the team. To free up time for the team the email wrangler for the day would parse out anything about our department and email anything urgent back out to all of us there and then and anything else was kept for an email synopsis at the end of the day.

2) Question cascading. The "email wrangler" would if possible handle any team-based question and if they couldn't they would email the next person in the list, if they couldn't answer they would email the next person and so forth until someone who could answer it would email the original question and answer to the whole team and whoever asked the question.

The list for the question cascade and the list for "email wrangler" was the same one and to make sure no-one was always hit with being the first asked to answer a question the email wrangler would email the person after their self rather than starting from the top.

It worked pretty well. The problem with team based questions is that it is like cars at an intersection and there is no traffic lights, everyone stops and waits for someone else to make the move but if traffic is to get moving again the lights either start working again but that means talking to the city council(management) or someone needs to start directing traffic(team member)




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