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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?

Trevor Hill's picture

I work in a law...

I work in a law firm, and this happens all the time. Since I'm too busy, I usually ignore any requests not specifically meant for me. The sender can always specifically ask me if they would like.

I can think of a number of ways of handling these though, I probably go through some form of the following process sometimes:

If you don't know how to answer; then delete/archive. If you know the answer, and can respond quickly (~5min), do so; delete/archive If you know someone who would know, respond suggesting delegation to that person, delete/archive. If you know the answer, but it would take a while, let them know and ask them to reply directly if they would like you to work on it, then delete/archive.

I think the key is realizing that you need clear responsibility before doing something significant. So just exchange info quickly until it's clear that you are or aren't going to get the responsibility. Be helpful, but don't care (in terms of tracking or worrying about it) about the problem until the sender clearly asks you to. Ask for that clear assignment.




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