Have You Really Cleaned Your Plate, or Are There Leftovers? - Next Action Associates

Monika Danner has worked in corporate HR and leadership roles for more than 15 years. She has been a GTD® practitioner since 2014 and works as a certified GTD trainer for Next Action Partners in Germany.

Remember buffets? It’s been a while since they’ve been available, and for our health that might be no bad thing. Science has long since proven that unlimited abundance does us humans way more harm than good. Apart from a fact, after most buffets there is quite a bit of food left over, which is no longer really in-keeping with our sustainable zeitgeist.

We are experts in clearing up old leftover waste, but not in the kitchen – we help change habits where our clients’ focus often is: on their over-full inboxes. When we introduce the idea of working from a zero base in their email inbox it is usually a surprising concept for many of our clients. But when they implement as we suggest, they get to work with easily digestible ‘next actions’ instead of overflowing buffets of unclear ‘stuff’, to stay with the analogy.

For us, the email inbox is merely a temporary collection point that gets emptied regularly. We clarify everything that comes in, take care of two-minute actions, archive references, put good ideas on our someday-maybe list for later, and identify clear next steps and desired outcomes from what’s left. Then we can get down to the real work with a clear head. Rule of thumb: every 24-48 hours the inbox is back to zero.

Not so fast…. For some, unfortunately that’s not the end of it; they have a second mailbox. Not a personal one, but one they share with colleagues. Typical addresses start with [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], or [email protected]… The names vary, but the principle is the same: if you send something to the address, you don’t know who will answer, and you don’t need to know. It can be one person, it can be 15. The main thing is that you get a prompt response.

For teams with a lot of inter-departmental and customer contact, the advantages are clear:

  • Continuous availability of a team – there is never an “out of office” message like you’d get from an individual
  • Continuity of the address over time even if there may be many changes in the team membership
  • Equal sharing of responsibility for general enquiries within the team

It only becomes problematic when there is no clear accountability for who is responsible for doing what (and when they’ll be doing it) behind the anonymous address. In the best case scenario, this “only” leads to multiple reading of mails, double replies and some light frustration among those who process the mailbox. In the worst case, the additional inbox becomes a mail grave for which no one feels responsible, and instead of more customer satisfaction – simply causes more frustration. An uncleared buffet if you will, where the salmon sandwiches are slowly turning grey.

To avoid this, if a team is planning or already operating a shared mailbox we recommend teams ask themselves the following three questions:

  1. Question: What should the address be used for and do we really need it?

What kind of requests/mails/information do you want to see in the inbox? Who should know the address?

This also determines, among other things, where – or whether – it gets published. Here, everything is conceivable from the variant “actually, the address is secret, we only use it to document mails via bcc” to “we no longer have any personal mail addresses in the team, everything runs via this one address”. The broader the filter, the higher the expected mail volume – and the more resources are required to process it in the team.

  1. Question: Where do we store information and reference material? 

This question becomes more relevant when the email box has to be able to do more than handle short-term enquiries and is deliberately used as an entry point for information and reference material. For example, the team may need to at least document the status of completed cases. In some situations, a legally prescribed, data protection-compliant filing system might also be necessary.

General rules about the best folder structure are therefore difficult to make, beyond the principle that there should be nothing in the reference material that still requires action, that it should be quick and easy to file and find references, and that any archive should also be tidied up every now and then.

  1. Question: What is the principle for emptying the inbox?

Emptying the inbox regularly has many advantages for us GTD® users. In a nutshell: I waste less energy because I no longer read anything twice. I avoid stress because I don’t keep any unfinished to-dos in the back of my mind. I treat the email inbox according to its nature as a mailbox, and not as the master of my working day.

To achieve this in the team, we see three possible variants to empty the inbox. The right choice that suits the team again has to do with the expected volume of messages as well as the size of the team – and the response to question 1.

Variant 1: The rotation principle 

In this case, one person or a tandem/team is completely responsible for the mail account for a specified period (1 day, 1 week, etc.) and processes EVERYTHING that arrives there. This variant corresponds most closely to a ticket system, e.g. in IT support.

One advantage is the maximum customer benefit with the greatest possible anonymity of the processor. This system is successful when requests are very comparable, require uniform handling and additional expert knowledge is rarely necessary. It probably makes sense to have a handover (“what is still open”) at the time of rotation. It is suitable for larger units and the processing of large quantities of incoming mails.

Variant 2: The “grab it” principle

In this case, all relevant team members check the inbox regularly and without time allocation and independently pick out what they think they can best process (because of time resources, professional responsibility, skills, etc.) Technically, the identified mails can be marked with a personal category OR moved to their own name folder. Emptying the inbox then works almost automatically.

This requires a lot of consultation within the team in order to function well. It can work if the overall volume remains manageable and the experts are equally responsible in picking out “their” emails and marking them in the same way. Rules of the game and expectations of email communication should be discussed in the team, e.g. What performance promise do we make to the customer in terms of response times? And, as is the case with a buffet, a key question is what to do at the end of the day with the pallid salmon slice that no one wants.

Variant 3: The dispatcher principle

One or more persons (also possible in rotation) are responsible for emptying the inbox and distributing mails in the team. The criteria for distribution can vary: according to time availability, equity, regionality, expert knowledge…

Technically, this can be done (as an example) in Outlook via folders by person: @Tim_action, @Jenny_action… Alternatively, by creating tasks that are sent to person xy via the assign function. In the mail folder, the respective agents only look at “their” mails and answer them independently. As soon as they are completed, they are moved (@Tim_done, @Jenny_done) or tasks are marked as completed. The dispatcher sees the released capacity again.

The advantage here is clearly assigned responsibility for incoming mail and the clear allocation of responsibility – without duplicate orders or vague handovers between several people. In addition, in the case of unusual requests, it can be more efficient to assign them to an expert right away, or to enable faster processing through an equal distribution of labour across the team.  The success factor is the responsiveness of those to whom the dispatcher assigns the work.

With these basic questions discussed in the team, we believe that misunderstandings and frustration can be minimised, regardless of whether everyone in the team is a ‘GTDer’ or not. You might even discuss how you want to play it at a potluck learning lunch, instead of just continuing to graze on an unending buffet.

Bon appétit…

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