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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?

Jody's picture

Most commenters here seem to...

Most commenters here seem to get the nature of the problem and the solution. Nod to Brandon who knows my context and what I was about to blather on about. E-mail as the input interface for asking questions/requesting action is ok, not great though. We permit people to submit to our two-person "help desk", via a single email address, their requests - which are then automatically converted into a "ticket" within a popular open source issue tracking program. The next part is up to us to "take ownership" of individual requests as we see them streaming into the queue. Since the ticket owner's and ticket requestor's conversation is both stored in the database and telecast via e-mail to both of us we can keep up with just what we own or follow the other guy's work when doing so is helpful.

Making the input interface as easy and convenient for both requestors and techs is key. When people submit questions to our individual email address we usually scold them but simply forward it to the correct address for capture anyway. When we don't take ownership of a ticket we work on, or handle problems without using the tracking software we shoot ourselves in the foot by duplicating efforts or, worse, giving conflicting information. Keeping it simple so that we use our "system" is very important.

The mailing list as the total "system" for generating actions/answers may seem to be a simple solution, but it really isn't a solution at all. It isn't anything more than screaming out loud and expecting that someone, somewhere will give a crap and come to your rescue. Children, infants especially, do this. Managers and "knowledge workers" should not do this. It is a recipe for failure.




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