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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?

John Hoffoss's picture

Similar to what Elliott posted...

Similar to what Elliott posted in the first reply, I would say an "on-call" period would be the most elegant and straightforward way to handle this without software acquisition/system implementation, etc. that would provide the "best" solution. But I would modify what Elliott said in one way: you are on-call for one hour. Perhaps two hours. And that on-call responsibility rotates to EVERYONE in that circle. I've seen this concept mentioned in TimeManagementForSystemAdministrators by Limnocelli (I think that's where I saw this, at least.)

In this fashion, everyone has to put their "time in", but everyone is saved from having to filter through all the same rubbish. It also saves the poor schmuck who responds to the job posting "Google Email Wrangler" who then has to wrangle all Google's email lists! (With my apologies to Scott.) The on-call person then does the filtering & delegation where appropriate, or responds with a template, or answers the question outright. Then at the end of his or her two hours, you go back to your normal routine. And given the size of Google, I could see this duty coming up once a week or even less, depending on the nature of the way each list is actually broken up. Plus, all the content is still there for archival purposes.

The challenge I see in the "create a forum/wiki" argument is for that to work, everyone still has to go review the wiki or discussion group to see if they must provide pertinent information. Which means you'll have five forum power-users answering 80% of questions, and the other 20% sit without replies for all time. In watching the Merlin Show earlier with...name escapes me, googler...anyway, we learned from him that prime response time to broadcast inquiries is a contest of sorts, which only adds to the distraction posed by this. Same issue in forums, as I see it. With a delegated email responder/handler, they can at least be graded more on knowing who to pass the tough questions to, and get feathers in their cap for the fewest email messages left unanswered during their two hour shift.




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