No More Pretzels!

Let me begin with a health warning: Be careful as you watch the video below. It will give you a sympathy backache. That said, it’s worth watching it to see what a naturally gifted human pretzel can do.

Now think about how you might perform as a human pretzel.  No matter how much physical flexibility you may have, chances are that you cannot come close to the standards that Victoria Jacoby attains in the video.

Actually, let me rephrase that. Chances are that you cannot come close to her ability to contort her body, but I’m willing to bet that you far exceed her accomplishments when it comes to contorting yourself and your technology to accomplish everything you need to do everyday.

A classic case in point is email. Its ubiquity is a testament to its perceived usefulness. However, I’d suggest that we have been pushing its usefulness beyond the boundaries of safety and sanity.

So what are smart and safe uses of email? Craig Jarrow of Time Management Ninja suggests the following:

  1. Non-urgent communication
  2. Follow-up
  3. Praise
  4. Timeshifting
  5. Filtering
  6. One-t0-many communications
  7. Sending documents/pictures
  8. Mobility

If those are the good uses, what are the bad uses? In 2007 Dave Pollard outlined the bad use cases in When NOT to Use Email:

  1. To communicate bad news, complaints or criticism
  2.  When you are seeking information that is not simple and straight-forward
  3. When you are seeking approval on something that is involved or controversial
  4. When you are sending a few people complicated instructions
  5. When you are asking for comments on a long document
  6. To request information from a group on a recurring basis
  7. To convey instructions to a large number of people
  8. To achieve consensus
  9. To explore a subject or idea
  10. To send news, interesting documents, links, policies, directory updates and other “FYI” stuff.

For each of these cases, Dave Pollard provides what he considers to be the better way of communicating. (You can find a concise summary of the alternatives in his post, Getting Rid of Email.) In addition, he has created a detailed decision tree you can use to determine what mode of communication is best in each circumstance.

People are fond of saying that “Lawyers live in email.” A more accurate way of describing this is as follows: lawyers spend their days as human pretzels when it comes to email. They contort themselves and their technology, pushing it to do things it was never meant to do.

And then we get mad when things go wrong?

Perhaps it’s time we shifted from the bad use cases to the better use cases for email. Perhaps it’s time we finally outlawed pretzels — of the human and technological kind.

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The Transparency Switch

Are you ready for your firm to flip the transparency switch?

For many law firms, their Achilles’ Heel is e-mail. Almost all correspondence is handled electronically, but lawyers around the world have not always been diligent in sending copies of this correspondence to their firm’s records management system. To be fair, most firms I know ask their lawyers to do the right thing, but until recently there has not been technology available to make doing the right thing easy. Now, with the availability of electronic tools that can prompt a lawyer for filing details before sending the message — or, even better, suggest how the e-mail should be filed — firms are on the verge of having accurate, real-time institutional records of their electronic correspondence.

Risk managers at firms will breathe a big sigh of relief when these systems are in place. However, have others considered the impact of having the e-mail collections available at their fingertips? Suddenly, the firm’s communications will move from obscurity to transparency. One obvious consequence is that with centralized access to all the correspondence with a client, a lawyer should have a better understanding of the ongoing conversation between the client and the firm, and should be able to provide better service. And, if lawyers come to see this centralized collection as accurate, complete and reliable, they should over time stop hoarding e-mails in private Outlook folders. This will be another win for client service and firm risk management.

But, have you considered what happens to communications within the firm when all e-mail is retained in a searchable repository? What if there is a complete, centralized record of e-mail correspondence among administrative staff? Will the quality of the support services they provide improve? And, will there be an impact on office politics?  Or will the e-mails that record the daily dramas of the life of any human organization be excluded from the drive to transparency?

There are interesting times ahead.  Are you ready for your firm to flip the transparency switch?

[Photo Credit:  hockadilly]

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True Productivity

How productive are you?   Really???

A recent post by Rees Morrison on the subject of productivity caught my eye. In it he described the “five-or-10-minute rule,” which recommends that you wait five or 10 minutes between the time you write an e-mail message and the time you send it. The theory is that this brief waiting time will give you an opportunity to think about the consequences of your message before you click send.

I suspect advice like this has saved many of us from acute embarrassment over the years. To my surprise, however, Rees Morrison characterized this advice in the following way:

Good advice, very lawyerly, impossible to criticize, but it will obviously hobble productivity. To advise in-house counsel to ponder the legal consequences of what they do with email – indeed, with everything they do – is to be on the side of the angels, but let productivity go to the devil.

His conclusion made me wonder about his definition of productivity.  If your definition of productivity is to get as much done as possible, a delay of even five minutes on each e-mail message could cost you valuable time for action.  However, what if that rushed e-mail proves to be wrong.  Then taking a few minutes to avert disaster suddenly seems like the most efficient course of action.

I’d suggest that the right definition of productivity is not “get as much done as possible” or even “get as much of the right things done as possible.”  Rather, a better definition of true productivity is:  Get as many of the right things done in the right way. Under this definition of productivity, the “five-or-10-minute rule” makes perfect sense.

[Photo Credit:  f_mafra]

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The Customer is ALWAYS Right

At a recent gathering of law firm knowledge managers, I was told that I could make their lives easier by enabling subscription by e-mail to Above and Beyond KM. To be honest, until that point I had mistakenly assumed that nearly everyone in this social media savvy crowd had migrated to RSS readers. Therefore, I hadn’t bothered to set up e-mail subscriptions when I first launched this blog. I should have known better.

Lawyers live in Outlook. And, despite expert advice discouraging the practice, many treat their Outlook Inbox as their To Do list. If you don’t make it onto that list, you get ignored. While acknowledging the shortcomings of e-mail, some have made impressive strides in finding more inventive and efficient ways to use (and misuse) the tool. Clearly, if I was going to reach readers who either loved their e-mail or couldn’t overcome inertia sufficiently to deal with RSS, this Mohammed was going to have to go to the mountain. So as of last weekend, you’ll find in the right-hand column a quick and easy way of subscribing to this blog by e-mail.

Ask and you shall receive — because you’re the customer, and the customer is always right.

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E-Mail Addiction

New York City’s Daily Post reported recently that residents of the Big Apple, Washington D.C. and Atlanta tend to check e-mail more than residents of any other place. And, apparently, more women admit to e-mail addiction than men. (Although, based on what I’ve observed, I can’t help wondering if this is more a reflection of (i) honesty in survey responses or (ii) actual practice.)

Given what we’re learning about the inefficiencies of e-mail, that’s a colossal waste of time. Here are some sad excerpts from the Daily Post’s Report, based on the Third Annual AOL survey:

Of those surveyed, 59% percent of people who own a portable device, like a Blackberry or Treo, check email in bed while in their pajamas; 37% check it while they drive; and 12% admit to checking email in church.

According to the survey, the average email user checks mail nearly five times a day. Fifty-nine percent of those with portable devices check their email every time a new message arrives. Forty-three percent of respondents with portable devices say they keep it nearby while sleeping in case they get a message.

Fifteen percent of those surveyed consider themselves “email addicts” (16% of women and 13% of men), and many plan their vacations with email access in mind. About 40% of email users say access to email is “very” or “somewhat” important to them when planning their vacation; 83% of email users admit to checking their mail once a day while vacationing.

Thankfully, people increasingly are beginning to understand that e-mail is not always the right way to communicate. However, as with any addiction, the first step is admitting that you’ve got a problem. If you have any doubts about it, think about the last time you tried to sneak a peek at your e-mail. (According to the survey, 53% admitted to checking e-mail in the bathroom.) If you felt guilty — you’ve got a problem. And, if you don’t feel guilty, you may have an even bigger problem!

The next step is actually taking steps to reduce your exposure to e-mail (e.g., checking your e-mail at regularly-scheduled times rather than every time you receive a message). In addition, you need to find alternate ways to communicate that don’t invade your life during and after business hours as much as e-mail. For example, using wikis or blogs to post information that people ask you for repeatedly by e-mail. Once it’s centrally available, they can check that source rather than bothering you every time.

I know there will be some readers who really believe that checking e-mail constantly is an essential job requirement. That may be the case for a minority of us. But for the rest, consider the tough words of Mary McKinney, Ph.D. of Successful Academic Coaching:

In my experience, email is the most insidious, seductive time-waster we face.

In fact, for many of us, email is a pernicious addiction.

Checking and replying to our electronically-delivered messages seems like a necessary, innocuous occupation, but it is also a major form of procrastination. [emphasis added]

There’s lots of advice and commentary on the web about how to manage e-mail better. Here is just a sampling:

Seven Tips for Dealing with E-Mail Addiction
Merlin Mann’s irreverant series on managing your inbox
Luis Suarez’ reports on giving up work e-mail at IBM
John Tropea’s guidance on Re-Purposing E-Mail

Let me close by quoting Mary McKinney again:

The basic premise of these suggestions is that our email addictions preempt conscious time management choices.

DECIDE THAT YOU ARE IN
CHARGE OF YOUR EMAIL,
NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND.

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Do You Dare Do This?

Dave Pollard has posted on his blog, How to Save the World, a memorandum that every firm should consider sending.

The question is, how would sending it change the practice of law in your firm?

Take the challenge of this thought experiment. At a minimum, it will help you better understand which communication tools best suit particular types of communication:

– decision-making in real time by employees in a single location
– decision-making in real time by employees in different locations
– arranging appointments
– simple requests for information and quick responses to them
– conveying project status/update information
– FYI communications
– survey requests
– providing training information

For too long, we’ve been using e-mail and voice mail like overly-large machetes to drive a rough path through the communications jungle. There now appears to be a consensus that while these may be relatively fast tools, they are rarely effective or efficient for the myriad purposes to which they are put. Further, there are now available a much wider range of alternative tools that do the job better. And, savvy folks are reviving some rather retro methods (e.g., talking face-to-face!) to improve the quality and efficacy of their communications.

Read Dave Pollard’s memorandum and think about how you personally could improve the way you match communication tools to communication goals. Then think about how to teach this to your law firm colleagues. It would make a world of difference to your knowledge management program and to the quality of life within your firm.

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E-Mail Triage

I used the telephone the other day.

Of course, using the phone isn’t exactly a radical thing to do, except that my reason for using the phone was important:  I picked up the phone to short-circuit an e-mail mess.  What was the e-mail mess?  My colleague and I were e-mailing each other to make some practical arrangements, however, our e-mails seemed to be out of sync.  Perhaps it started with one of us not reading and understanding the original note in its entirety because we were skimming it quickly on our blackberry.  This led to a number of e-mails back and forth, trying to explain the original message and trying to correct misunderstandings.  Finally, as I was about to push the send button on yet another explanatory message, I realized that we were “talking past each other” and needed to find a way to ensure we actually connected and finalized the arrangements.  So I picked up the telephone.  
It took all of two minutes to sort out the mess and confirm the arrangements by telephone.  You do the math:  two telephone minutes versus the time required to read and write five (or more) frustrating e-mails.
E-mail is the primary mode of communication within most businesses, including law firms.  Yet, despite all the practice we get, few of us have really mastered e-mail.  It’s a rare person who uses e-mail appropriately and efficiently.  And it’s a rarer person who can write an e-mail message that is a model of clarity despite the fact that e-mail cannot convey with any degree of precision the affect most of us rely on in personal interchanges to communicate and interpret the emotional content of a message.
For those of us who would like to brush up on our e-mail communication skills, here are some tips from Seth Godin’s E-Mail Checklist that are worth reading and implementing.  They may not provide a complete answer to e-mail triage, but they will make a difference.
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Death by E-Mail

Returning from a few days out of the office, I was reminded again of how oppressive a jammed Outlook Inbox can be. Even though I diligently checked and responded to e-mail messages during my absence, I still faced a daunting pile of messages and related items that required follow-up. The resulting sensation was a little like suffocation — with the likely outcome of death by e-mail.

There is an extreme, but highly effective, strategy for avoiding death by e-mail: simply declare an e-mail moratorium. Luis Suarez has completed seven weeks of Giving up on Work e-mail. Others like Lawrence Lessig and Fred Wilson have declared “e-mail bankruptcy.” In the words of Wilson, “I am so far behind on email that I am declaring bankruptcy.” Haven’t we all experienced that feeling.

A less drastic measure is to follow the advice of Lifehacker Gina Trapani who recommends dumping that backlog into a separate Outlook folder and starting with a clean slate. You’ll feel like you’ve lost 20 pounds. Alternatively, the folks at Lifehack offer How to Avoid E-Mail Bankruptcy: 5 Rules that Work.

Jack Vinson’s post, Yours is bigger than mine, ha ha, points out that a key problem is that we are profligate in our approach to e-mail. We send too many messages to too many people. Mutually assured destruction by e-mail. The only solution to this is to send e-mail sparingly.

Being an advocate of incremental change, I took Gina’s advice. It’s an interesting experiment in personal knowledge management, but it seems to me to be very necessary. I can attest to the incredible lightness of being I experienced when my inbox shrank from several thousand messages to fewer than 10. Now let’s see how long this lasts.

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