How are you doing with managing your email load?  With the profusion of tools and technologies, it’s supposed to be getting easier for us to manage our digital communications – but that does not seem to be the experience of anyone I know.  Every passing day brings a new flood of emails into the inbox.  Many of these wait too long to be answered.  Most are not given the due thought and attention they deserve.  It feels as if we’re just not keeping our heads above water.  And as I look three, five or ten years ahead, I fear that the situation will just get worse and worse.

I truly believe that in the next few years more than a few of us will reach breaking point in relation to digital communications.  The number of emails, text messages, instant messages and voicemails that will be demanding our attention will just become too much for us.  I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that a meltdown is imminent.  The question for leaders everywhere is: what do we do then?  The systems that were supposed to make communication more efficient and our businesses more productive now threaten to overwhelm us and produce precisely the opposite effect.

The results will be:

  • bad decision-making
  • poor relationships
  • shallow and cursory communication
  • damage to our businesses and reputations.

I don’t need to tell you that failure to respond to customers’ emails is one simple way to chase those customers away.  I don’t need to remind you that failing to deal with issues related to your staff and colleagues is a very simple way to damage your managerial authority and leadership position.

Yet despite how potentially enormous this issue of digital communication overload threatens to be, I have met very few business leaders who are thinking about it, making plans to deal with it or engaging with their team about it.  Given the enormity of the implications, this issue deserves our full attention.  Right now.

Band aid solutions

The only real solutions that some companies and leaders are experimenting with relate to the recipients of digital communications.  There are numerous tools that can help us manage the incoming messages that we receive.  There are clever bits of software, for example, that can help you manage incoming emails into your inbox, automatically highlighting important emails (or, at least, emails from important people), using filtering rules to sift through your emails, even deleting emails that are clearly not for oneself and moving emails into sub folders that can be dealt with at appropriate times.  You can use internal mail systems that apply automatic filtering rules, or use systems like Google’s Wave to pull all your communications into one space.  These tools are exceptionally helpful and highly recommended.  But they are actually part of the problem and not part of the solution.  They are part of the problem in the sense that they allow us to feel that we have capacity to receive more information.  They provide the illusion of control over our inbox.  But we are still at the mercy of the incoming flood.

Other solutions on the recipient’s side of the problem involve pushing all of your digital communications into as few channels as possible.  For example, I have a fax number which links to a free service that will convert any incoming faxes into email format and forward them to my inbox.  That way I don’t ever receive any actual faxes and can manage those I do get from within my email system.  I also discourage people from phoning and leaving voice messages on my mobile phone (and I don’t have a landline alternative number either).  My voicemail message prompts people to send a text message or an email.  Colleagues and business partners have been “trained” over the years to not phone me.  I feel no embarrassment about doing all I can to cut off this one digital communication channel and I do my best to ensure that I am as responsive as possible when people connect with me via my preferred digital communication channels of email and instant message.  But even so, the problem of digital communication overload is just deferred, not solved.  The solutions cannot only be on the receiving side.

Real solutions require systemic change

The only true, long-lasting solutions are going to be those that not only deal with what happens when you receive digital communication but also with the entire culture around sending digital communications.  Our technology has paradoxically made it too easy to send bulk information to too many people.  Back in the days before digital communication, if we wanted to send a copy of a document to everyone in the office we would have to spend some time at the photocopier running off multiple copies and addressing each one for internal mail and sending them out.  Besides the cost of paper and photocopying to do this, there was also the time that needed to be allocated in order to make it happen.  These put a price – a physical cost – on sending every piece of information to everyone.  We have lost that sense of cost in our new digital world.  And we have made it too easy to send too much formation to too many people.  It is all too easy to fill the cc box of an outgoing email – almost without thought we send copies of information to people who do not really need that information in the first place.

I believe that part of the solution – a big part of the solution – is to create systems that reinstate some of the ‘cost’ of sending information.  There is no one-size-fits-all easy solution for this.  But here are some suggestions that you and your colleagues might like to start experimenting with as we think of ways to change behaviour as we embrace new technology:

  • Impose a daily email limit on everyone

A number of years ago I was involved in a committee that was lead by a chairman who was passionate about increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of meetings.  At the start of each meeting every person around the table was given five marbles.  Every time you made a contribution to the discussion you had to give one of those marbles back to the chairman.  When you had no marbles left, you were no longer allowed to contribute to the meeting.  It was possible to give marbles to other people if you felt that someone else around the table might have a great contribution but either did not have any marbles left or did not want to give up one of their marbles.  The chairman was also capable of giving marbles back to certain people.  This approach made you think very carefully about where and when your best contribution to the meeting’s proceedings would come and to weigh carefully any contributions you were thinking of making.  I think a similar scheme could be instituted for emails.  The most simplistic method of doing so would be to limit the number of emails each person is allowed to send each day.  It’s probably too crude for a long term solution, but it might be worth trying this for one day a week for a few months, just to start to make the point about thinking more about what emails (and/or text messages and/or instant messages) need to be sent.

  • Use codes to help distinguish between emails

Another idea would be for your team to agree on a series of codes that senders of digital communication are required to put at the beginning of their message (preferably at the start of the subject line for emails) to indicate what type of message it is, what type of response is required, how urgent that response is and even who needs to respond.

For example, you could have a code made up of three parts.  The first part of the code could be a letter: a, b, c, and d.  Each one of these could have a meaning attached to it: a = for information only; b = information you require in order for you to continue doing your work; c = decision needed; d = just for fun; and so on.  The second part of the code could be a number indicating the level of importance/urgency:  1 being ‘very important and very urgent’ down to 5 being ‘for interest only, when you get a chance’.  The third part of the code could be a colour and that could indicate how quickly a response or a reply is needed: red being immediate, orange being within in a few hours, yellow being today, brown being this week and green being when you get the opportunity.

A system like this allows you to analyse incoming messages at a glance.  I would suggest that this code is the first two or three letters or the opening word of the subject line of each email sent internally within your organisation so that at a glance you can look at your inbox and be able to see which emails require your attention and response immediately.

  • Separate recipients of emails

Following on from the previous point, it should be obvious that different recipients would need different codes.  What is urgent and important for one person might just be for information of another.  Currently, the CC line of emails is the real curse of our digital communications.  It’s just too easy to copy hundreds of people into emails – but without necessarily highlighting which bits of the email are important for them.

We need to get into the habit of not just cc’ing people so that they can make an inference about what has happened but rather sending direct emails to them stating what we need them to understand.

  • Ban the use of CC

If what I have said so far makes sense then this is a slightly bolder move: we should simply ban the use of the Carbon copy field when sending mail.  A good friend of mine who is a partner at one of the big accounting firms has a rule on his incoming inbox that any emails that he is cc’ed on are automatically deleted as they arrive.  His view is that if he was supposed to read the email then it should have been sent directly TO him and if there is information in those emails that he is required to respond to, even as a cc recipient, then someone will contact him fairly soon and ask him why he hasn’t responded, and they can then send him the information and he can do as required.  It doesn’t seem to have done him any harm at all.

You may want to try this out for one day a month, just to see what happens.  You could go further and make a rule that every email may only have one recipient, and one recipient only.  That will force people to think about what needs to be said to that specific person.  Go on.  I dare you.  Try this one day a month.

  • Yellow cards, three strikes and you’re out

An even bolder (and more technically challenging) move might be to use the social media concept of rating people to actually create a system that self regulates the flow of information through an organisation.  I have in my mind that we would create a system that gives you the ability to rate all incoming emails on a scale of 1-10 (where 10 indicates a great email, well written, intended for me that I was grateful to receive, 5 indicates a reasonably well written email that I appreciated receiving but which could have been done better and more efficiently, right the way down to 1 indicating a badly written mail sent to the wrong people which I didn’t need to get and was irritated on receiving).  The ratings should be published on a regular basis (possibly weekly) and people who are consistently rated as 9 or 10 get some rewards and people who are consistently rated as sending 1, 2 or 3 rated emails are in some way punished.

I would go even further to say that you could build the system so that if somebody got more than five 1 or 2 ratings in a day that they were then blocked out of the email system for the rest of the day.  This is essentially what happens with a spam system.  I have been on the receiving end of this sort of treatment from over-zealous corporate mail filters because the server on which our company’s many domains are hosted is often used to send out bulk newsletters (including our company’s own newsletter which gets sent to nearly 15,000 every month).  Added to that our company logo is simply the name of our company in graphic format and this is not very good from a spam filter perspective, increasing our spam score quite dramatically (we have only recently discovered that this is a factor in rating our emails and are seriously considering a branding change in order to deal with this particular issue).  The effect of this is that we often get notices from other servers and companies that our emails are now being blocked.  We have to then jump into action to defend the rating that our server is given and ensure that no actual spam has been sent from our system.  It does focus the mind and it does generate behaviour change.  I see no reason why this type of system would not work for individuals in companies.  It might be harsh, but it will certainly send a message and change behaviour.

Rules for 21st Century Communication

These principles could obviously be extended further to all forms of communication within an organisation.  I am really tired of going to meetings where almost all we do at these meetings is work through documents that were already distributed before the meeting.  I hear from colleagues in various industries that this is a common complaint, especially with audit committees, technical committees and staff meetings.  If information has been distributed by email it should be taken as read.  If you’re not going to assume that people have read the information you have distributed, then don’t distribute it.  But this is, of course, just indicative of the problem we are creating for ourselves.  We distribute information but are then unsure that anyone is actually reading it.  So we then need to re-hash that content in meetings, which in turn gives people a perfect excuse not to read it in the first place.  It is a vicious downward spiral.  It is a leadership issue to step into this environment and reverse the spiral.  (For an excellent 15 minute video on this topic, see Jason Fride’s TED talk on “Why work doesn’t happen at work”: http://tinyurl.com/noworkatwork).

Issues of how we communicate and the culture of communication within your organisation (and even within your entire value chain and industry) are not issues that can be left to just work themselves out.  These are leadership issues and should be dealt with by leaders at the highest level within organisations.  These affect organisational design, strategy, leadership, teamwork, sales, marketing, branding, and anything else impacted by communication.

The next three to five years will see us reaching a melting point with regards to digital communications.  Forward thinking leaders will make sure that they have already begun the task of shaping the preferred communication culture within their organisations.  Don’t wait until the avalanche hits you.  Get ahead of the game.  I would love to hear from you about your thoughts and any experiments that you attempt in order to deal with these issues.  If you try any of the tentative suggestions I make above I would love to hear your experience and any tweaks or improvements you may have on my initial ideas.  If you know of any tools or software that might be useful please be in contact either by commenting on this article on our blog site or sending me an email at graeme@tomorrowtoday.uk.com

Dr Graeme Codrington is a futurist, researcher, author and expert on the new world of work.  He has a particular passion for understanding how changes in technology, demographics, social values and the world of work will impact people and how they connect, collaborate, interact and engage with each other.  See more details at http://www.graemecodrington.com

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