Category Archives: Articles

Email Bankruptcy Continues to Spread

Today’s Washington Post carries an article about an increasing number of people who find themselves having to declare email bankruptcy.

The article is full of sad cases of people who think that declaring email bankruptcy will solve their problem. It won’t. I’ve talked about why email bankruptcy is worse in some ways than financial bankruptcy, and this shows why email bankruptcy is not a solution.

Just as people without financial skills may find themselves bankrupt, people who lack email and time-management skills will find themselves wanting to declare email bankruptcy. People are usually restricted from starting businesses immediately after a financial bankruptcy. In a similar manner, people who suffer from extreme email overload should ensure they get some training in how to handle their workload before they get back in the game.

It’s not just a skill these people are lacking, though. It’s a way of viewing their inboxes and the place the inbox occupies in their life. I’m always saying that email overload is a state-of-mind, and David Ferris puts this very nicely:

“A lot of people like the feeling that they have everything done at the end of the day. They can’t have it anymore.”

I speak from experience. I once declared “job bankruptcy” — my inability to cope with my workload, in which email played a major part, prompted me to tender my resignation. My boss did not want to accept it, but I was determined. During the time that I worked out my notice, I adopted the Getting Things Done method. All of a sudden, I had more than doubled my productivity and reduced my stress tremendously. GTD worked for me because it solved both the practical and psychological sides of the problem. I found that I could do the job well after all, and I continued working there for another 18 months!

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Solving the Productivity vs. Security Dilemma

Many of us find ourselves processing email while on the road. In fact, sitting on a plane, or while waiting for one, is probably the best time to catch up on a stuffed inbox.

However, when we’re away from the office, we’re at our most vulnerable point with respect to viruses and malware. While we’re away, we access the Internet via insecure public networks (hotel rooms, coffee shops etc.), which lay us wide open to infection from the Internet as well as others using the same network. We have to learn how to negotiate with our desktop firewalls and configure our VPN client software, and many of us get so frustrated that we have learned to bypass these obstacles, even if it means that we compromise on security.

This is not only a problem for individuals — it is a problem for companies, too. After you’ve taken your laptop on the road and possibly got it infected with malware or spyware, what do you think can happen when you return to the office and connect to the company network? I still have vivid memories of being hit by the Code Red virus in 2001 in a hotel room over a dial-up connection, despite my up-to-date anti-virus program. Had I not realized immediately that my machine was infected, it would have attacked my company’s network from the inside when I got back to the office. I also know first-hand of at least one incident at a major US corporation where an employee returned from a business trip and started a virus outbreak the minute he connected his laptop to the network.

Conventional thinking has it that productivity and security are like a see-saw; if productivity goes up, security goes down, and vice-versa. Microsoft could not have been as successful with their operating systems and Office products had they been overly concerned about security from the outset, instead of focusing on usability.

This poses a rather challenging paradox: Continue reading

The Speak-now-or-forever-hold-your-peace Approach

A recent white paper commissioned by Cisco about effective communication within virtual teams concludes:

‘Silence’ – or non-response to communication (email, voice mail, etc.) can be very damaging to virtual team effectiveness as it leads individuals to misattribute explanations for this silence.

Unfortunately, in many organizations the correct interpretation of silence is almost always along these lines:

“I’m too overloaded and haven’t even read your message.”

“I read your message, and intended to reply, but I did not get to it, and I don’t know if I ever will.”

“I’m not going to read your message — it does not look important enough. If it were really important, you would have phoned me.”

The major cause of silence is email overload — people just don’t get to all the messages that require their attention, or don’t manage to follow through with a timely response. So if you’re managing a virtual team, don’t rely on email as the main method of communication.

One of the best technical writers I’ve worked with took a rather cynical approach to non-responsiveness, under the guise of interpreting the silence optimistically. When sending a document draft out for review, she would write the following:

Please respond with corrections by (date). If I don’t receive any corrections from you, I’m going to assume that the attached draft meets your approval.

Obviously, this “speak now or forever hold your peace” approach can backfire, but if used judiciously, it can produce very good results. I know, because it worked wonders on me!

Apart from this “speak now or forever hold your peace” approach, what else can we do to improve our chances of getting a reply?

  • Craft your subject line well. It should summarize the message, not describe it. For example instead of “Annual Report, Draft 3”, write: “Need your comments on Annual Report by Wednesday.”
  • Use a rifle, not a shotgun: address a specific individual and not a group. The fewer people you address, the higher your chances of receiving a reply. (Here’s why.)
  • Include a clear call to action — tell the recipient exactly what you want or expect them to do, and make sure you do this near the top of the message, if not in the subject line itself.
  • If you’re writing to someone you don’t know, here’s a recent example of how to ensure they will not respond.

Email silences will still be inevitable. How can we minimize the resulting misunderstandings? How can we reduce the silences to a minimum?

And lastly, keep track of messages for which the replies you expect are overdue, and send out reminders if necessary.

How many emails to set up a meeting?

You want to meet. The other party wants to meet. You have a common interest in meeting. You’ve agreed to meet, but now you have to work out the logistics. How many emails and/or phone calls will it take to set it up?

A recent 90-minute meeting with someone from another company took a total of fifteen (15) emails back-and-forth and two phone calls to set up, over the space of a few days.

I won’t bore you with details, which included working with both of my counterpart’s personal assistants, each based in a different country, and reacting to changing travel plans. This was an extreme case, but not by much. Continue reading

Would you bet your life on email?

Email is critical part of company infrastructure and business processes, yet it is so structureless. This lack of structure is what makes it so ubiquitous — it’s easy to use it for everything. However, it can be extremely unreliable where strict business workflows must be followed.

If your life depended on it, would you choose email as your preferred method of communications? Too many things can go wrong, at both the sending and receiving ends, and I’m not talking about purely technical glitches.

How easy is it to accidentally delete someone from the list of recipients, or mistype someone’s name or address so that it goes to John Doe instead of John Smith?

Now compare this relative fragility with the potential damage it can cause. It boggles the mind. Here’s an example from earlier this year: Continue reading

“Reply-to-All” Exposes Blind Co-conspirators

I’ve read a number of articles that say we should use Reply-to-All very sparingly, so as to reduce the volume of unnecessary email people are getting. There are also those who try to discourage us from using the BCC feature, on moral grounds.

Although I agree with these noble reasons, I’d like to add another, much more practical reason why we need to be extra careful before using these features. Continue reading

“Hey, want an invite to an exclusive conference?”

Imagine you’re a prominent blogger, with lots to say about how blogs are revolutionizing the media. You receive an email inviting you to participate in an exclusive conference about the changing global media landscape, together with another 40 prestigious attendees: famous columnists, editors of major international publications, presidents of major news networks and members of Congress. Wouldn’t you want to rub shoulders with these opinion leaders, and have a crack at shaping their opinions?

According to conference attendee John Palfrey, six prominent bloggers were invited to this conference, yet not one of them gave the organizers the courtesy of a reply, not even just to say “Sorry, I can’t make it.” The organizers were astonished. Continue reading