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Vox Pop: Patterns for email as work conversation?

Inbox Zero is a system and philosophy that most benefits people who are overwhelmed by a high-volume of mystery meat email. The system works because it's stupid-simple, and the real art comes out of getting fast and ruthless at identifying requests for your time and attention that must be acknowledged or completed vs. the vast majority of stuff that needs very light attention (or can just get deleted).

But, not so fast -- what if, instead, you're receiving a high volume of easily identifiable messages? And what if your main "action" is reading, digesting, and then contributing? That's a bit trickier, as I have learned.

Every time I give the Inbox Zero talk to a tech-heavy group -- and most especially when I talk with engineers -- there's pushback on a couple issues. First, a lot of techies say they love it when everything gets routed through email, and second, they think an Inbox-Zero-type methodology isn't particularly useful for the type of communication that they get all day long. And that's conversations. Lots of conversations.

For many tech folks, email is the ideal and preferred way to avoid meetings and pointless flights. It's where they discuss features, debate implementation, and argue over the best solution to a problem. And that's how they like it. Some companies I visit with tell me they take pride in generating over 1000 person-messages each day. That's their culture, and love it or leave it.

This doesn't mean there's not room for improvement, but of course it's a valid and very real way to work.

Do stay tuned after the jump for your chance to join the conversation with comments and tips for managing conversational email, but first here's my observations on a few patterns that seem to work for a high volume of conversation based email:

  • Threading - you benefit greatly from an email app that lets you view messages grouped by conversation. This makes it easy to focus on one discussion as well as leap ahead as needed without distratction
  • Processing - Regardless of your style, I think it's still very valuable to process to zero on a regular basis, pulling out all the non-conversational emails that can be converted to action or immediately deleted. (more on processing email)
  • Filtering - It still seems valuable to identify lists and conversations that need less attention (or just don't need attention right now) so that you can keep them from grabbing you away from the nitty gritty. (more on filtering email)
  • Standards (esp. on subject and quoting) - Having a "house style" that your team agrees to use for subject lines and quoting will save you much heartache. If you've ever had to catch up on the latest additions to a three-week-old, high-volume thread, you'll instantly know whether everyone was on the same page.
  • Muting - I love mute functionality like that found in GMail. Basically, this let's you say "this is a conversation I don't need to follow any more," and new messages in the thread are archived automatically
  • Save and Search - Short, attachment-free, well-quoted messages make archiving and search a less-than-typical pain, so you can feel fine about saving old messages for as long as they remian useful to you. Then you can just pull them up via search as needed for historical purposes.

The Question to You

If your job requires you to keep up with a very high-volume of conversation email, please share your favorite tricks. Is the high-volume list-based system working for you? What helps you keep on top of things? What bits of Inbox Zero do and don’t help? If you could change one thing about the way your team handles email conversations today, what would it be?

gfmorris's picture

I still find INBOX Zero terribly useful.

I'm an aerospace engineer-turned-project manager, and for whatever reason, the NASA/contractor community is like this and wants to trade a crapload of emails. [I think it's because no one ever takes good notes in meetings and few are good with followup action items unless we have someone taking them down, but that's a discussion point for anotehr day.] So yeah, I get a lot of email, and much of it is discussion.

I've learned to adapt an I0 approach; rather than my methodology for personal email, which is sorted to Actions, Archives, and Responses, I have per-project folders for my work email. Admittedly, this is a relic of my pre-GTD days, but I also find that searching is a bit easier when I've already sifted the buckets a bit, since I'm seeing 100-200 emails a day coming my way. I generally keep my INBOX to a minimum, and I keep Outlook [I know, I know] up and running [I KNOW] at all times. Being a PM in my organization means being a human inforouter, and I delegate a lot of things that I can't answer immediately.

On my good days, I have a handful of emails left in my INBOX at the end of the day; when I'm being really good, I put those into Actions to start my day off right in my own personal task-management system [Alex King's TasksPro] and file the email so I'm staring at a tabula rasa the next morning. [Okay, that's a lie ... I'm staring at the 30 emails that came in between when I left work and when I got at my desk that morning.] Helps me manage it.




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