Bonnie returned with six minutes to spare before her eleven o'clock — just enough to check voicemail and email, if she did both at once. Slipping on her headset, she punched pound-six on the phone, and clicked "Check Mail" on her screen.
As she listened to her voicemail, her email program began downloading the first of 28 messages. "Amazing," she thought, "either I'm really important, or nobody respects my time." After the seventh message, she had to leave for her eleven o'clock.
That's why she missed message 17, which announced the room change for her meeting. She would arrive late, as would three colleagues.
Bonnie's organization is experiencing Emailstorming. Emailstorming is like brainstorming, but instead of using our brains, we use email.
In the constant storm of messages, only a few have significance to their recipients. We spend too much time figuring out which messages we care about, and we miss important messages completely, or we get to them too late, as Bonnie did.
Reducing the volume of messages is an appropriate objective for most organizations. If we can achieve it, we'll reduce all costs associated with managing email: server operations, personal interruption rates, message handling by recipients, and even message origination. When we reduce email volume, productivity does increase, and the email system becomes a more effective tool for the remaining messages it does handle.
Here are some causes of Emailstorming, and some tips for dealing with them.
In Shotgun Messaging, the sender "shotguns" the message to anyone who might be tangentially interested. The preferred methods of shot-gunners are a CC for the record (FTR) and CC for information (FYI). These are both examples of CC's to people who have no immediate need for the content of the message.
The purpose of most shot-gunners is defensive. Often, they want to be able to say, later on, "I sent it out, didn't you see it?" This is a wish, at best, and a ruse, at worst — sending something by email in a culture in which people are flooded with messages probably isn't a serious attempt to inform.
To keep someone "in the loop," send a private — possibly annotated — copy of your message. That way, they receive only the message, and none of the subsequent "Reply All" messages.
Tweaking CC's are messages that register a complaint, or contain embarrassing information about the recipient, and include a CC to the recipient's boss or to a wider audience. Tweaking CC's are usually sent to apply pressure, but they don't actually work. See "The Tweaking CC," Point Lookout for February 7, 2001, for more about this form of CC.
Sometimes Reply All is appropriate. At other times, especially when the original message had a Tweaking CC or contained FTR's or FYI's, a Reply All may actually be an "Annoy All." The risk of annoying every one of those superfluous CC's is enhanced when the content of the original message is still evolving, as in a discussion, debate, or poll, or when the reply is relevant to only a few recipients.
Replies that are especially prone to annoy are thank-you's (see below) and brief notes of agreement. To avoid sending an Annoy All message, use selective addressing of replies. Most often, only the sender needs the reply, but sometimes a few of the CC's want it too. Be judicious.
Public thank yous
Thanking people is a nice thing to do, but when we do a Public Thank You as a Reply All, we undercut the good we intend, by annoying everyone with our Thank You. Moreover, Public Thank Yous mean much, much more when delivered in person or by telephone, publicly.
Instead of using email for Public Thank Yous, allocate a few minutes of some or all of your telephone conferences or meetings for Appreciations. Give people a chance to say, for example, "I appreciate Ralph for discovering that we were actually under budget by 82%." You'll reduce email volume and increase the good feeling among the team.
Some email clients offer a capability of automatic replies when the recipient is out of the office. This feature originated in a much-less-connected world, and at one time, it did provide a convenience to email communities.
At most companies that experience emailstorming, those days are long past. Today, when someone is away from the office, they're more likely to remain connected and in contact. Indeed, many of us remain unaware of the actual location of those of our correspondents who travel. Autoreplies might still be useful in some organizations, but when emailstorming is happening, the need for autoreplies must be questioned.
Vendors of email clients can help us address this problem, and some do. If your email client has any of the following features, start using them:
- Turn on autoreply address tracking. Track the addresses to which you've already sent out-of-the-office autoreplies, and make sure that you limit the number of autoreplies per address to one or two.
- If your email client has autoreply blocking per address, block autoreplies to any distribution lists you subscribe to, such as firstname.lastname@example.org. Also block autoreplies to any individuals who usually know (or don't care about) your whereabouts.
- If your email client has autoreply blocking per domain, block autoreplies to your home domain. These folks probably know that you're away.
Unless these features area available in your email client, it's probably best not to use autoreply.
Some email systems have a mode for Reply in which attachments to the original message are included in the reply. That same attachment is then included in the reply to the Reply, and so on forever, until the thread dies. Ultimately, some recipients may have dozens of copies of the same document.
Rarely is this useful. It can even be detrimental, especially to those who read their email while traveling, when they might be using a slow connection. If your system is one that, by default, includes the attachment in the reply, learn how to inhibit its inclusion.
Sometimes, without realizing it, we fall into a debate pattern in email. Some have a desire for a transcript of the discussion, but email histories — "threads" — are a poor way to meet this need. Moreover, email is useful for debates only when the participants know each other well and have no more convenient debate medium. When the participants don't know each other, there's a high "flame" risk — e-debates can easily become e-wars.
When an alternative medium is available, such as telephone or a face-to-face meeting, use that instead. To turn the debate toward a meeting or telephone conference, simply suggest it, or just pick up the phone.
An e-war is a heated, possibly abusive argument in email. It usually polarizes around only a few individuals — the warriors — with everyone else acting as "audience." In an e-war, the warriors have an incentive to CC (or BCC) as many people as possible, so as to ensure the propagation of their points of view. This is one reason why e-wars are so explosive.
Because the audience is the source of energy for e-wars, a very effective way to stop an e-war is for all audience members to ask the warriors to remove them from the CC list. If that isn't possible, as, for example in the case of a defined distribution list, you probably need a telephone or in-person intervention to end the e-war.
When email survey response rates are low, the sample is rarely representative of the population, and the results are of questionable value. Here are some possible reasons why the response rate is so low: people are too busy; they're annoyed by all the surveys; they mean to reply, but then the survey gets lost in the email storm; the survey results never seem to make any difference.
As an alternative to email surveys, consider focus groups. Choose a random sample from the population, and conduct a facilitated discussion. You'll learn more, what you learn will have more value, and you'll disturb fewer people.
Routine announcements sent by senior management, HR, PC or Network Support, Physical Plant, Security, or other horizontal functions often arrive as separate messages, especially when they have distinct sources. Every message generates a potential interruption for every recipient, and every recipient has to read every message separately to determine its possible relevance. These messages are especially annoying when they apply to only a portion of the recipient population.
Consolidating non-emergency mass announcement messages into a daily or weekly e-newsletter not only reduces inbox clutter, but also reduces interruption rates.
What to do about all this
Each of these mechanisms contributes to Emailstorming, and each has a solution. Implementing these solutions sometimes requires individual action, and sometimes coordinated action. For example, addressing the problem of Mass Announcements requires cooperation between fairly independent functions. Clearly, Management plays an important leadership role in such cooperative solutions.
Surprisingly, Management also plays a key role in solutions that require individual action. When leaders make the term "Shotgun Messaging" a part of the organizational vocabulary, they make it easier for everyone to recognize it when it happens, and they encourage everyone to address the issue directly with shot-gunners.
By propagating the names of these practices throughout the organization, through some very simple training, Management gives the people in the organization a language they can use to discuss the practices that contribute to Emailstorming. And when people have names for these practices, they can work together to limit them.
There's a trap though. Distributing a link to this article throughout your organization via email risks violating the intent of sending it. Instead, get the message out by making Emailstorming a topic of an organizational meeting or training. Dealing with email problems in email is like throwing water at a flood.
Does your organization spend too much time Emailstorming? Contact me to discuss your specific situation, by email at rbrenEuiSLqQKVScdFcYnner@ChacVzIkNLgpwgVVfJUpoCanyon.com or by telephone at (617) 491-6289, or toll-free at (866) 378-5470 in the continental US.
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