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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?

Brandon Valentine's picture

There are a lot of...

There are a lot of great ideas in this thread, so thanks to Merlin for throwing this open. I think we are all talking in this thread about several slightly different but related issues. There is lots of good discussion on how to deal with delegation of action or requests from outside the team.

I think the original meat of the question though is about how to deal with team members probing each other for knowledge and for that I think I have to say that email is absolutely the wrong tool. The essential components of this communication seem to be: 1) to make sure that everybody can see the question and 2) to see whether someone else has responded. Once those objectives are achieved, the rest of the team is absolved of the task and the conversation can continue in private. To fulfill those objectives some sort of instantaneous communication is necessary and I think that is why bug tracking systems and wikis will not suffice. The problem with email for this task is that while responses are being drafted no notification arrives that a draft is underway which would absolve the remaining team members of the question.

If I were working on a team that had this problem I would want to try to get everyone on the team using Twitter or a Twitter-alike for these sorts of queries. In using Twitter a query can easily go out to all members of a team, and then an immediate response can come back from the party who has the knowledge claiming responsibility. At that point everybody else is absolved and goes on with their lives.

Caveats are that the Twitter tool easily becomes a source of distraction. A solution is that any team using such a tool needs to be establish a boundary that reserves use for business and forbids non essential chat or other distractions. Another solution is for individuals to hide their Twitter reader while working and make disciplined decisions about when to check it (and act on or respond to it!) as they would do with any other technology (email, RSS reader, etc).

Hope this helps.




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