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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?

David CL's picture

My group (we're programmers) has...

My group (we're programmers) has evolved the following process. It's a work in progress, but mostly it works okay for us and for our "clients" within the organization.

1) Keep groups that handle requests small. If the group goes above about 8 people, problems like this are magnified. When the department grows, split the group into sub-units that handle specific types of requests. (If you need to keep the larger email list for distributing information, that's fine, but make it clear to everyone who uses the lists that the larger group cannot accept QUESTIONS or REQUESTS.)

2) If the message says "PROBLEM" in the subject line, we agree to take responsibility for it within an hour. That means, someone in the group needs to answer it and say "I'm dealing with this." If more than one person answers, they walk to each other's desks and work out who will actually do it.

3) If you handle a group request, or send an email saying you are going to handle it, send that reply to the group so everyone knows it is being dealt with. This sounds like it creates extra email, but really it helps-- everyone who sees the "I'm handling it" email can just delete the first message.

4) In GTD style, if it's something that can be handled in less than 2 minutes, we just deal with it and answer it. Usually it isn't a big deal if more than one person does this. Since we don't read email constantly, this doesn't happen all that often.

5) The hardest part: if the request hasn't been claimed by the end of the day, the department manager (that's me) is responsible for assigning it. Why is this hard? It means I have to keep all these requests in my inbox (or a holding folder) until they're claimed or assigned, and then deal with them, which can be a distraction from my actual work and can make it hard for me to use my inbox like an inbox. I generally try to address this by proactively assigning things as they come in, but on busy days this can get out of control.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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