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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?

David's picture

Last job I worked at...

Last job I worked at had something somewhat similar, at least in what I am perceiving as the set of issues at hand: 1) there is a pool of people who have multiple responsibilities 2) this pool is collectively "responsible" for the inquiries 3) this pool has the email intake as one of many responsibilities (see #1) 4) various people have various levels of competence/skill in various subjects (i.e. a few people will have great skill to give to a given question subject, while others have skill in other subjects, etc.)

The goal was to get the "best" answer as quick as possible to the person in need. As with most service industry (divisions) activities, there is a pay-off between speed and control and quality.

When we started, it was just like the original post. Then we tried massive control (e.g. assigning ownership, time-slots, etc.) but this cut down on quality and/or someone "required" to answer the question taking time from someone who had the solution -- control plus quality that cost us speed (and redundancy of effort).

We ended up assigning a last-resort time slot -- basically the OPPOSITE of being "in the barrel" (not that barrels are bad, just not for us at that time). There was a person or two assigned to take anything not answered after a certain period of time (e.g. 1 hour, 4 hours, whatever makes sense).

To GTD this, if an email came in that I KNEW was not in my expertise, I trashed it. If I knew I was one to answer it, I would answer it (CCing all) or, worst case, give a statement that I would answer it in 30 minutes (for example). If I were to get an "I'll answer it in 30 minutes," I would delete the thread - done. Or if someone else could answer the question WELL before the 30 minutes (again, 30 min. is only an example), then CC all and we all delete the thread.

The only time I had to hold onto emails was if I was "in the barrel" (to use the previous poster's metaphor). If an email came in during my time-slot, I held on to them until I answered them or someone else did. Sometimes it meant I had a ton of emails to be responsible for, but we made sure no one person got the hot time-slot every day. Further, I was allowed to ask others to help with my email-load if it was ridiculous that day.

I'm not filling in all the dots / making all the connections / outlining every procedure lest I end up writing an article (ha). But I think you can get the idea. Plus, the system changed when managers changed, when enough of the "pool" changed, etc. -- when the dynamics changed.

Also, we ended up going to a bulliten-board system as well (now with RSS, it's much easier still).




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