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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?

Kevin's picture

It was said a bunch...

It was said a bunch of times above but bears repeating. The low level problem here is, if two people are responsible for some thing, then no one is responsible for it.

The only way around it is to set it up so someone is primary for catching list things and handling them. Ideally you find a way to prevent the other people from even seeing the requests unless necessary. If it is important set up a heel to toe watch, even go as far as to have a little informal handoff ceremony.

It can help to have a visible token, a huge dunce cap or a traffic cone or a stuffed animal, anything. This will help remind the person they are on watch, and they will be very happy to get rid of this token so they won't forget to make the hand off. It also can serve as a clue to other employees who run of to the first random tech team member to ask a question. It can put extra strain on the person catching, but it really helps keep other people from unnecessary, unplanned for interruptions.




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