Spherical Cows Don’t Suffer From Email Overload

CowAfter taking a short break in order to release SpeedFiler for Outlook, I’m back. For a totally new product, with zero marketing effort so far, it’s been much more successful than I originally expected, and things are progressing nicely.

I am now concentrating on future products that will help alleviate a wider range of email overload problems for more people. One of my basic guiding principles is simplicity. Even though I love technology, I am always attracted to a simple solution rather than a sexy hi-tech one. In this context, simple means easy for the end-user to grasp and use and also (but not always) cheap to develop and maintain. I’ve often found that if you attack a problem head-on, the solution you devise will tend to be much more complex and less effective than if you take the take the time to understand the root causes and contributing factors, and address each of these instead. They are often quite far removed from the observable symptoms, and usually much simpler to fix.

Microsoft and others are working on solutions to email overload (e.g. SNARF, ClearContext). These solutions use complex algorithms to analyze our accumulated email and watch how each of us interacts with the rest of the world. The aim is to help us handle our incoming email more efficiently, by highlighting what they guess is important to us. They are using some innovative ideas and cool technology, but I still view this approach as a brute-force attempt to alleviate email overload.

One problem with this technological approach is that we humans are most definitely not consistent and predictable. Tools that learn from yesterday’s actions and attempt to guess the correct priorities to assign to tomorrow’s email will only be able to get it right for some of the people, some of the time. Predicting our future behavior is not as easy as solving a mathematical equation, especially if using convenient approximations for inconvenient properties (“consider a spherical cow”). Each of our individual equations are extremely different, with different variables, and any approximations to the way humans think will tend to have a butterfly effect on the resulting answer.

What about email processing rules? Most people find it hard to formally describe the decision-making process they go through when deciding how to handle a piece of email, let alone translate this into the tens of rules it would take to do it automatically (if this is even possible). Let’s not ignore the fact that such a set of rules would have to be continually tweaked as our work changes from week to week, if not from day to day. Today’s notion of email rules just does not match the dynamic way we think and make decisions.

At the end of the day, much of the stress we experience due to email overload is attributable to our lack of training and discipline in handling our email. Although tools alone cannot eliminate the problem, there is plenty of room for tools that help us make better decisions and gently steer us towards a more efficient way of communicating.

In the coming months, I’ll be focusing on solving some of the root causes of email overload.


6 responses to “Spherical Cows Don’t Suffer From Email Overload

  1. David Wagstaff

    Observing behavior changes the behavior being observed. So even if someone really and truly gets the magical algorithm that can presort your email (maybe even answer some of it for you), as soon as it’s known we’re going circumvent it to suit our purposes. As soon as antibiotics were introduced, bacteria started becoming resistant. As each web search engine, including Google, the reigning king, revealed their sorting algorithm, people used the very same algorithm to artificially boost their page ratings. Or more to the subject at hand, why don’t spam blockers work? Well, they did for a moment. And then the spammers circumvented the spam blockers.

    One root cause is that people think what they have to say is important. (Actually they think they are important, and what they say only reflects it, proves it.) In short, they like to be heard (or read), and responded to.

    So even after getting rid of the easily detected Viagra spams, you still have to deal with genuine, but misguided, people. People, who will resist your tools whenever the tool silences or even delays their messages. And unlike bacteria that take a decade to resist a new drug, people will circumvent the tool in days.

    I agree that training and discipline in handling email is needed. I further agree that the tools used must involvethe users. Indeed, “help US make better decisions and gently steer US towards a more efficient way of communicating.” [capitalization emphasis added] To be successful, the tool (or technique or culture…) must convince people that by using it, they will be heard and responded to more.

  2. David Wagstaff

    On a personal note, I complained about email misuse in an open team meeting. To make sure everyone understood EXACTLY what I was talking about, I gave pointed examples of everyone in the room including myself. Gentle readers, Miss Manners does NOT recommend this technique. The result was immediate verbal defensiveness and name calling. For the next 2 weeks, the team spam–which didn’t abate one iota–contained harassing anotations such as “Dear All–Oh, I’m sorry, does that make this spam? ;-)” and “Please forward me your suggestions–and don’t forget to include Dave. ha ha”

    The difficulty in email training is avoiding the appearance of calling the email abuser’s baby ugly. When you say, “Jim, I’d rather you didn’t copy me on X.”, what Jim hears is “Jim, what you do is worthless, and so are you. Please write me when you are doing something more important.”

    Therefore, I suggest these guidelines.
    1. Use life-like examples without actually incriminating anyone in the training.
    2. Give each email rule a short name such as “CC expects no reply”. Particularly effective are insider nonsense names that remind everyone of a common story. “Sorry, no bananas here.” Even stupid acronyms work well. “NASGAR”
    3. Don’t castigate violators by reminding them why their behavior is unacceptable. Yes, you do have to be specific, but don’t explain it, or you’re perceived as patronizing, moralizing and insulting. Simply state the rule, “Jim, I didn’t reply because ‘Sorry, no bananas here.'”
    4. Pick your battles. In a rush, even the most obedient peer will TO instead of CC. Officiously calling attention to every violation will only result in your unofficial–yet oft used title–Spam Nazi. And Holy [Robin explicitive]! You don’t ever want to make a mistake yourself. You’ve be hoist on your own petard.
    5. Use common scripts and tools across the company. It’s one way for the tool to guide the users to correct behavior without you being the cop. “Sorry, Jim, I didn’t notice your urgent request at first because you TOed more than one person and my script didn’t flag it as important.” Jim is more likely to understand if he has the exact same behavior for his email.
    6. Have automated reports that flag potential violations. “Jim, this report shows you sent email to the entire company 13 times last month.”
    7. Have short, clearly written policies.
    8. Above all, do the training. Even if you don’t get it exactly right at first–who does?–it’s better than assuming people will use good sense. First, they don’t have good sense, or you wouldn’t be reading this. Second, your kind assumption won’t be appreciated. Third, training won’t make the situation worse. It’s a small investment with a potentially huge payoff in productivity.

  3. Our way forward in solving alleviating the Email Overload problem, in a corporate context, is this: http://tinyurl.com/lfeo2

    In short, we will redirect all mass emails to syndicated, subject-based blogs to which end users have either mandatory or optional subscriptions.

  4. We have the same solution as Patrick…

    RSS will eventually replace email

    Read: Why Blogging is Essential to Your Business


  5. Pingback: eBizBlog » Blog Archive » Info Avalanche: Email is Taking Over

  6. RSS will never FULLY replace our current email system.

    I also agree that more training to handle emails is needed

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