Saturday, May 5, 2018

Email Headers as Navigation Buoys

We're all trying to survive in an environment of information glut, and some of us are drowning.

Just last week I had a student in one of my facilitation trainings explain that he missed seeing the course handouts (that had been distributed two weeks prior to our getting together) because he gets too much email to track it all. He needed a text message alerting him that an important email had been sent. Yikes! 

Essentially, he wanted me to communicate with him twice (via two different media) so that he could avoid being responsible for looking at everything that came in every morning on the flood tide swamping his In Box. While I'm sensitive to how spam chokes our email, burying the wheat in a surfeit of chaff, I didn't have a great reaction to the request that I do more work so that he could do less. (Who's zooming who?)

Given that it's highly unlikely that we'll put the genie back in the bottle (do with fewer or less robust modes of communication), we have to figure out better ways to cope with information overload. If you are part of a group that relies heavily on email to communicate (many of us are), I suggest adopting a protocol whereby group members classify in the subject line the kind of communication that is being sent. I recommend using ALL CAPS in the following ways:

Use this when you want a timely response from recipients. Usually this is accompanied by a drop dead date, such that your approval is assumed if there is no reply by the deadline, or you have no preference. If you respond late there is no guarantee that your input will be taken into account. This is used mainly to coordinate (as in setting up meeting times), to gather input in a routine manner, or to run drafts by people that you expect to be noncontroversial.

This lets people know that a meeting is coming up at which a decision might be made. If you want to have your input on this matter considered, attend the meeting. Or let the shepherds know your views ahead of time if you can't attend. 

If that header is too dry (who said we can't have fun?), how about LAST TRAIN, to inform everyone that this is their final chance to have input considered before the train leaves the station and the decision is likely to be made. If you submit views later than that, it's less likely to be taken into account, because the bar for reconsideration is necessarily higher than the bar for consideration.

This alerts readers to the fact that an issue is about to be discussed about which there is known to be some energy. Either there is already a fire, or there is plenty of smoke. So wear fire retardant clothing.

Hear ye, hear ye. This announces that an agreement has been reached and there is now a new sheriff in town—by which I mean a new policy or a fresh agreement. Maybe you'd prefer DONE.

This announces the record of what happened at a meeting. The minutes are where you'll find the rationale behind the decision, which may be important in discerning whether you have anything new to offer (if it's already been taken into account maybe you needn't speak up).

To be used for personnel notes, or delicate negotiations where recipients are not permitted to share the contents without express permission. Perhaps you'd enjoy SHHH instead.

No action or response is required. The content is informational. If time is tight, these are the emails to skip or jettison.

• • •
While these categories won't cover everything, they can provide a rational basis for a quick prioritization without even opening the email, providing only that the communication has been classified correctly. And when time is tight, you'll appreciate having access to a tool that can serve as a personal flotation device to help navigate the deluge.


Nenad Maljković said...

This could be a good practice. And there is also The Email Charter:

michaelsmith said...

Hi, I've been researching IC's off and on and one thing that puzzles me about the IC movement is that the whole movement, in formulating its operating procedures, all seems to studiously ignore the most successful IC movement in history, a template that has functioned effectively for 400 years and currently sustains the day to day operations of literally hundreds of communities. I refer, of course, to the Hutterites. Even if most new IC's prefer not to, or cannot, imitate the Hutts exactly, surely it is not wise to totally ignore a model that has functioned effectively for so many for so long. It seems like it might save new IC's from having to reinvent a lot of wheels. Does anyone else have an opinion about this?

Laird Schaub said...

It's useful to think of intentional communities divided into two major categories: a) those with a central leader or a defining spiritual practice; and those that are secular and make decisions collectively. The Hutterites, naturally, would be in the former category.

Because of my abiding interest in creating and sustaining cooperative culture, I focus almost exclusively on the latter category, and the community culture tends to be very different in the two. Thus, I rarely look to the former for guidance about how to create and sustain the latter.

To be fair, I'm sure you're correct that there will be useful lessons in what the Hutterites have created. But it is not my area of expertise. Secular communities are.

michaelsmith said...

Thanks for your reply. My work schedule doesn't leave me time to check my messages everyday, hence my tardy response. I understand that you may have a special interest in promoting communities characterized by secularism and participatory democracy. However, my question is intended as a general one and not directed narrowly toward any one person. Perhaps I am naïve about the politics of the intentional community phenomenon, but it seems to me there must be many participants who are not so ideologically focused but just want to establish communities that endure, and who are ideologically flexible enough to do whatever will give that new community its best chance of thriving. It seems to me that the amazing record of Hutterite success should have made them an object of intense interest to that part of the IC movement, to people who just want to do what works, yet the Hutts seem to remain "off the radar" to a movement that has basically strived for the last half century to "reinvent the wheel." Frankly, I'm puzzled, and while I understand your individual position as someone who has an agenda that is broader than just community viability, that clarification does not shed any light on the thinking of IC participants in general. Perhaps you could forward my query to some of your contacts in the "intentional community" community. I would love to hear a cross section of views.

Laird Schaub said...

To be clear, I am not trying to promote secular communities; I am trying to promote cooperative culture. While mostly the work of developing that is being done by secular groups, there is a segment of spiritually oriented groups that make a commitment to supporting spiritual development among members without defining what the path should be. These groups also contribute to cooperative culture.

In spiritual/religious groups with a defined path, the culture is more about surrender to the wisdom of a living avatar, or a guiding group of elders. This model, while viable, is very different than one in which the group relies on the wisdom of all members to discern how to proceed.

In my experience, most members of such groups (most of whom try to operate by some form of consensus) would have nothing to do with a group run by a central leader, or a ruling oligarchy. Thus, systems developed by the Hutterites are not seen as germane to the challenges faced by groups operating by consensus. That may be unfair and unwise, but that's what's going on.