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The Annoying Productive Guy At Work: Shaming Users One Color At A Time
Derrick Bostrom | Oct 23 2007
I was recently put in charge of on-site tech services after a two year apprenticeship as the assistant. Surveying the mess left to me by my former boss, I'm amazed at how many open projects he allowed to grind to a dead stop on his watch. I suppose it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. Bloated from the effects of rapid growth, my company suffers from years of rampant position-creation and ill-considered solution grafts. Left to grapple with a culture of contradictory goals, incomplete training and an end-to-end process similar to Sartre's "No Exit" ("hell is other departments"), I'm surprised my predecessor got anything done at all.
My new assistant is an 18-year-old "millennial," as I guess we're calling them now. He's a young computer Borg who could hack before he could walk. In a probably vain attempt to keep him from quitting before I get in at least one decent vacation, I'm constantly looking for ways to keep him engaged.
"What IS all this crap??" He guffaws at the cascade of emails that greets us every morning. "Do you really READ all of this??"
You don't read it, I tell him, you PROCESS it. It'll take months before he learns to fish the actions out from the dozens and dozens of messages clogging his in-box all day long. But once he learns to manage the broadcast, he'll also get a front-row seat for the epic drama of fear and heartbreak that passes through our mail server every day. Our company's high reliance on email creates such a dense barrage that it creates a perfect means through which things fall through the cracks.
I work in a high-turnover, low-skill, interruption-driven work environment where a strong back and the ability to keep the rabble in line will get you a lot farther than any sort of transcendent appreciation and mastery of technology. Folks here are typically over-worked and under-paid, and when I have to insert myself into their already overburdened workflow, their reactions range from passive-aggression to open hostility.
A couple of week ago, I found an old performance review while cleaning out my desk. On the final page, scribbled in an area marked "goals," was an odd item which I'd forgotten all about: "develop training program for helping leadership better manage email." Last year, I was told to work with our Outlook users whose mailboxes had grown too large, announcing that those folks above 60 megabytes would be having their accounts suspended. (Of course, the deadline came and went with no action taken, despite some of my users having in-boxes more than ten times the allowable size.) The project came to mind the other day as I looked over a co-worker's shoulder.
"Why don't you delete that unread five-megabyte email from someone who hasn't worked here since last spring?" I asked her.
She looked up at me with heavy lidded eyes and replied, "I'm...just...too...busy...."
This person's experience was typical. It would have been a blessing if her account was suspended; the system was all but useless to her anyway. Trying to explain best practices to such a hapless user is a lost cause. I decided to try an approach that combined humor, some color, and a little public humiliation. Every week, I would load all of my users into a spreadsheet sorted by mailbox size. I gave each increment of 100 megs a different color and attached a gag color legend, changing the gags every week. One week, the red users (my worst offenders) had "completely given up," the next they were "blackballed from the Clean Plate Club." Last week, they were "helping the terrorists." And so on.
It got people's attention. Yesterday, my heavy-lidded co-worker finally asked for some help. First we separated out all actionable stuff. Then we fished out all relevant reference material. Then we banished the rest. I stitched everything into place with a small but powerful handful of rules, then showed her the result. She looked it over for a minute or two, then suddenly turned to me with a startled look on her face. "My god!" She cried, pointing to the screen. "I didn't realize this was due on Monday!"
In effect, I've started an ongoing email clinic. Some people respond to the competition: they want a lower number than Lumpy in the next desk over. Others will just add me to their pile of unread messages. But folks are also coming forward who are genuinely interested in freeing themselves. I'm sure my approach won't work on everyone. After all, no one gets up at the crack of dawn and tries to cram 60-plus hours of work into 40-hour work week, just so they can satisfy the arbitrary impositions of some guy from another department that they hardly know. But I keep the offer out there, and eventually I'll rescue the ones worth saving. To be honest though, I'm really just trying to save myself. It's these modest checks in the win column that help me make it through the work day.
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