Saturday, January 12, 2008

No "Thanks" Needed

Every time I watch Merlin Mann's Google video on Inbox Zero, I get a little more out of it and gradually the idea of a Zero Inbox is capturing people's imagination in our institution. We have now run two 60 minute staff sessions where we projected the video, had some stories from current users, and then had a Q&A discussion to explore some of people's ideas and concerns around this notion.

Our last week's session produced a nice, concise list of principles for emailing. It seemed different than the usual list of DON'Ts, as it was linked to specific strategies for helping people more efficiently process their email. Most lists aim to do that, and with the rationale right up front it seems to make even more sense. It also serves to remind people of their responsibility to help the receivers on the other end (or at least think about them when they shoot out their mail). Linked to this, we are getting ready for David Allen's visit to our institution in April for a day seminar with our staff on "Getting Things Done". I think that all of these discussions about pesonal productivity also help us see more clearly how, by getting our own stuff done most efficiently, we can actually help other people get their stuff done too (a.k.a. Teamwork).

Below is our list:

9 Principles for Email Good Practice

To facilitate SEARCH and ARCHIVING:

  • Put an accurate title in the "SUBJECT" line (and please don't leave it blank)
  • If possible, use one email for one topic, action or decision needed


  • Use the "TO" field for those persons from whom you need a response, use the "CC" field for people's information only (no response needed)
  • Put any deadlines at the top of the email in bold (consider putting them in the "SUBJECT" line)
  • If you can identify the next action and prominently include it in the email, it will reduce processing time for the recipient.
  • If it is really URGENT, and the turnaround is very short, then call the recipient if possible to see if they received it (don't assume that they have read their email in a short time period)
To minimize VOLUME:
  • CC only those people who really need copies of the correspondence
  • Ask for responses or acknowledgements if needed, otherwise do not expect/do not send "thanks" responses to signal receipt
  • Do not automatically REPLY TO ALL

The hardest part of this exercise was writing the email to staff signalling this discussion (an email code of conduct had been formally requested by the senior management team). It had to be completely congruent. I ended up sending it to one person for their direct response, and ccing everyone else to give them the option to comment or DELETE.

Most institutions have these rules or guidelines, developed a couple of years ago when email started to become the way you run your life. I hear that we do too somewhere. And I guess it never hurts to repeat this exercise. Perhaps renewing the discussion will get more people interested in analysing, and where necessary changing, their email practice - with the goal of helping themselves and others spend a little less time fiddling with email and creating a little more time to do other interesting stuff.