Our friend and occasional guest blogger Dan Markovitz has often written about the problems associated with email overload. But he has just come to a bit of an epiphany… he may have been completely off base.
I’ve spilled a lot of electronic ink (fortunately, electrons are cheap)
telling you how to manage email. But I’m now wondering whether my
advice has merely been addressing the symptoms, and not the actual
problem. Which is to say, I’m giving advice on how to handle email once
it’s hit your inbox. But perhaps I should be focusing more on the root
cause of all those emails.
I’m impressed. How often do you hear of a consultant that admits to being incorrect? But that’s besides the point… after only one or two "why’s" you end up with "why the hell do I get so much email in the first place?" Fundamental root cause analysis.
If you’re versed in lean, six sigma, or the writings of Peter Drucker
and William Edwards Deming, you know that you can’t control — and
therefore can’t improve — a process if you can’t measure it. And I
would argue that we do a terrible job of measuring email. Yes, we know
how many messages are in our inboxes, and we have some idea of how many
messages we get per day, but that’s only a small fraction of the
measuring that we should be doing. And it’s the least important
I confess that I manage my Inbox by how many emails are in it. If it’s below 30 or 40, I go home in peace. When it gets over 100 I start to get nervous. And when it finally exceeds 500 I’ll usually block off a few hours some Friday to get it back down to 30 or 40… at which time the cycle begins to repeat. At 200+ a day (after a spam filter!) it doesn’t take long. But guess what: it also doesn’t take all that long to get it down from 500+ to 30.
Why is that? It’s not because I don’t triage and take immediate action on incoming emails… even though I don’t very effectively. It’s because I allow those emails to get to my inbox in the first place. Why?
Instead of simply bemoaning the flood of email you get, you should be asking questions like:
- what percentage of my emails are worthless?
- which departments (or people) generate most of my worthless emails?
- what topics show up in most of my worthless emails?
- does the volume of worthless email vary by the day of the week?
- how long does email sit in my inbox?
- why do emails sit in my inbox so long?
The last two items point to my problem with triage, but I’m more interested in preventing the need to triage in the first place… ensuring I only receive emails that absolutely require my attention. Who is sending me the emails I don’t need to see and why? How do I stop it? In some cases people feel the need to copy me on emails, quite often I get sucked into email "conversations" that never seem to end. We’re informally working on some policies such as "no more than three replies to any email" and "if someone calls, call back instead of emailing back." How many questions could have been resolved with a quick phone call or even a quick meeting instead of an email?
Speaking of meetings, Dan also extends his analysis to that bane of the organizational world.
This same approach can help you analyze why so many of your productive work hours are spent in meetings that add so little value. I’ve yet to meet a person who isn’t frustrated by the amount of time spent in meetings, and yet no one seems to conduct a thorough measurement of this blight.
Why not ask explore some of the following questions?
- how often do meetings start and end on time?
- how focused are meetings?
- how often do meetings end without resolution?
- what are the most common goals of meetings?
- are meetings the best way of accomplishing those goals?
- can the company set standards around meetings — standard times, standard days, standard formats — to accomplish those goals?
Yes, good questions. Perhaps I’ll email them to my staff…
Mark Graban says
I’m all for finding the root cause of a problem like this. My wife set a good example when she asked her employees to quit cc-ing her on everything (a habit apparently developed under the old leader).
That said, I’m afraid this post further spreads the management legend that Dr. Deming said something like “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”
That’s been a pet peeve of mine lately and John Hunter covers this quite well here:
Matt @ Corporate Hack says
Good thoughts overall. Email can quickly get unwieldy, but I always have to point to Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero method (www.inboxzero.com) – it’s totally revamped my email mentality.
One point I have to disagree with though… a quick meeting is never quicker than an email, in my opinion, and I’d rather deal with an email than a phone call any day. I think it’s more efficient… phone calls and emails can quickly get off topic, but emails (properly constructed) are to the point and can be dealt with on an “as able” basis.