June 19, 2024

Bits: When E-Mail Turns From Delight to Deluge

Those days are long gone. Now, when I examine my various e-mail accounts, my main emotion is dread.

One morning last week, I sat at my desk and stared at my Gmail in-box; 40,000 unread e-mails stared back. (That big number is a function of my life as a writer, and of having five different accounts, work and personal.) Feeling unusually invigorated, I attacked the mountain, trashing subscription newsletters and social networking alerts en masse. I typed brief confirmations for various meetings, sent long-overdue R.S.V.P.’s and replied to a few friends who had sent warm notes of hello. In an hour, I worked my way through roughly 100 e-mails.

Satisfied by a morning well spent, I left for an early lunch. But when I returned to my desk an hour later, it was as if I’d never deleted a thing. There were dozens of new messages, each waiting to be tackled.

Frustrated, I closed my e-mail and couldn’t bring myself to return to it for the rest of the day.

It wasn’t always like this. E-mail was once a great tool for communication, one that was less intrusive than the telephone and faster than the Postal Service. Now, even when it works as designed, it’s a virtual nightmare — and, occasionally, an actual one. I’ve had many a stress dream about missing important notes from my boss.

Where have we gone wrong?

Part of it has to do with how stagnant the format of e-mail has remained, while the rest of communication and social networking has surged light years ahead, says Susan Etlinger, an analyst at the Altimeter Group, who studies how people use and interact with technology and the Internet. E-mail is largely arranged along a linear timeline, with little thought given to context and topic.

“It’s become another timeline or feed,” she says. “It goes by and then it’s done. The current model of e-mail feels obsolete.”

She also says that while most e-mail providers are trying to block spammers and phishers from bombarding people, they have barely begun to tackle the problem of social spam — a plague of unnecessary and unwanted e-mail that includes alerts from social networks like LinkedIn, Twitter and Tumblr.

“The spam problem has mostly been fixed, at least, in terms of what is legitimately supposed to be spam,” she said. “It’s the unwanted e-mails that are so horrifying.”

These frustrations seem universal. And they are not going away anytime soon, particularly given the news that the post office is planning to drop the delivery of certain mail on Saturdays. Our dependence on e-mail is only growing. Indeed, Pingdom, a Web site that monitors Internet use, published a report in January saying that there are 2.2 billion e-mail users worldwide, and that global e-mail traffic has reached 144 billion messages a day.

Some preliminary answers to this digital quandary are emerging.

Google offered its version of a solution with Priority in-box, a feature that tries to automatically identify urgent messages. And Apple recently introduced a “V.I.P.” tag that will push a notification to the user when an e-mail arrives from a previously designated important person. These help, but they are not enough on their own.

Even using both systems, I still resort to keeping an eye on my in-box through the day and jotting down a list — on paper — of people to write back at the end of the day or before bed. It’s archaic at best, and I rarely get to everyone before the day is out.

Of course, there is a regimented, minimalist approach to clearing out in-boxes each day — otherwise known as In-Box Zero — but that requires a level of constant attention and maintenance beyond the scope of my time and patience.

I was starting to consider e-mail bankruptcy — ditching my account and signing up for a new one — until I heard about a new option in the e-mail wars, an iOS app called Mailbox, which promises to change how we manage our mail.

Mailbox, in a way, harks back to an older, simpler system in which you checked your mail — the paper kind — and sorted it as soon as you received it. You read the most pressing letters first, tossed away the junk and set aside pieces of mail that could be dealt with later. The app does much the same thing, by letting users sort their in-box into three neat columns, in a much sleeker and prettier interface than the basic mail clients available for the iPhone or most Android phones.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/10/technology/when-e-mail-turns-from-delight-to-deluge.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

You’re the Boss Blog: Are You Involved in Every Decision at Your Company?

Creating Value

Are you getting the most out of your business?

Does every problem still come across your desk? Are you spending too much time in the weeds and not enough thinking about the big picture? Are you feeling burned out? For many business owners I know, the answers to these questions are a resounding “yes.”

One of the best ways I know to create value in a business is for the owner to become operationally irrelevant. That doesn’t mean leaving the business. It means changing your relationship to your business. Instead of being involved in every decision, you build a team and find a way to trust your senior employees to take care of their individual areas of responsibility.

I use the term passive owner to describe owners who have removed themselves from the day-to-day operation. Instead of solving problems all day, they have moved on to working on strategic issues. You know a business has a passive owner when it can run for weeks and or even months without the direct intervention of the owner, because there are managers in the company who are competent and have been given the authority and responsibility to keep things running smoothly. Here’s a fun way to think about it: Several years ago, Norm Brodsky wrote a column for Inc. magazine in which he argued that the more vacation time he took, the more he increased the value of his company.

Passive ownership is hard to achieve. At first, we don’t believe it’s possible. If we get to the point where do believe it’s possible, we often have to change not only our behavior but the culture of the company. Worse, we’re busy — so busy in fact, that we often don’t have time to stop and take a look around. We’re forced to deal with emergency after emergency after emergency. Before we know it, another day has passed and we’re still in the same place.

To take the first step toward passive ownership, we have to be able to get past living as if everything is a crisis. When we’re constantly in crisis mode, everything is late and we’re always under tremendous pressure. At least, that’s how it was for me. I thought I had to be involved in every decision. I lived as if everything was an emergency. I drove my staff crazy and, frankly, my company wasn’t a very satisfying place to be — neither for my employees nor for me.

In the early ’80s I ran across a book by Stephen Covey called “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” The book talks about four stages that people occupy. They are:

  1. Urgent and important (where I was living).
  2. Important, but not urgent (where I needed to be).
  3. Not important, but urgent (I delegated, but not effectively. The project seemed to always land back on my desk).
  4. Not important and not urgent (where I hid behind useless activities and was completely unproductive).

I realized that I would have to move out of stages 1 and 3 and spend more time in stage 2 if I were ever going to be successful. It wasn’t easy, but I found one thing that I thought was a crisis and successfully delegated it to someone else. Then, I did it again. Over the course of a couple of years, I managed to get some time to work on important but not urgent activities. And that’s when life started to change.

Passive ownership requires the owner to build a team of effective managers, to have a reporting system that shares critical company information and to have systems in place that let front-line employees know what to do and how to act. This might sound easy, but it often takes several years of taking small steps before you even get close passive ownership.

For my company, the result was that we went from providing inconsistent service to being tactically excellent. We developed systems, and we stopped acting as if everything was a crisis. We had systems in place to keep crises from happening in the first place but could plan for things that were likely to go wrong.

Building trust between my managers and me was a real challenge. My issue was that I had a very difficult time understanding what was happening when one of my managers made a mistake. At some level, I didn’t fully understand that it wasn’t on purpose. This is where I ran into W. Edwards Deming and his books on quality management. One of his rules was that you don’t blame the person — you blame the system. This was a really difficult rule for me to embrace. But as we put more and better systems in place, the mistakes got smaller and more manageable. This took time and the willingness to change.

There’s a reason a lot of owners have a habit of micromanaging. In the early years, if I hadn’t been obsessive about being involved in every aspect of the business, the business might well have failed. It was only as the business became more successful that I had the option of learning to back off. But I know I waited longer than I should have.

Take a moment and ask yourself whether you are constantly feeling the pressure. If you answered yes to the questions at the beginning of this post, you might want to think about ways to make at least some of these issues go away.

Josh Patrick is a founder and Principal at Stage 2 Planning Partners where he works with private business owners on wealth management issues.

Article source: http://boss.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/27/are-you-involved-in-every-decision-at-your-company/?partner=rss&emc=rss

You’re the Boss Blog: ‘I’d Be Happy to Share My Thoughts and Experiences as We Go Down’

Staying Alive

The struggles of a business trying to survive.

On Dec. 10, 2009, I was sitting at my desk, reading this blog — I think it was a post by Jay Goltz. My business was not doing well. His was struggling, too, but clearly he wasn’t as close to the edge as I was. I sent the following e-mail to the editor of this blog:

Hey Loren,

Love the blog. Great crew. One thing I’ve noticed: you are missing a blogger whose business is in the process of going under — which, if statistics aren’t lying, is a significant percentage of your target readers. Maybe it’s too much of a bummer, maybe you just haven’t found a willing candidate. Well, I’m here and I’m qualified — I’ve been running a custom furniture manufacturing business for 24 years and this recession is slowly killing us. I’d be happy to share my thoughts and experiences as we go down (or not, there’s still some hope.) How about it?

Paul Downs

Two months later, long after I had forgotten about the e-mail, I received a reply:

Hi Paul,

Sorry for the (very) delayed response. I’m still struggling to catch up with the e-mail — as you can see. But thanks so much for your comments — and also for your intriguing idea. I hope your business is doing better, but if you’re still interested, I would be eager to hear more. What kinds of things would you want to write about?


I wrote back (in part):

Thanks for getting back to me — I didn’t think I’d hear from you. It’s not a fully fleshed-out idea right now, as the inherent problem is knowing whether we are really going to fail or whether we will pull out of the death spiral. I suppose one way to structure it would be to keep a diary and start telling the story only if the worst happens. Another would be to confess at the outset that we don’t know what’s going to happen, but here’s what’s happening today, and then proceed with posts. …

There are plenty of subjects for posts — here are some of the things I’ve been dealing with in the last two years:

Main Subject: Layoffs

– Do you tell the workers that trouble is brewing, or keep them in the dark in the last minute to keep them from jumping ship? (We went through this in the summer of ’08 when it seemed that jobs were still available). Effects of a keep-them-ignorant policy (which my partner insisted on) were very negative.
– The moment of truth, announcing layoffs, and the odd cheerfulness that everyone felt at finally knowing their fate.
– The day-after-layoff speech to the remaining workers.
– The second and third time around. Becoming hardened to the horror. How the survivors react.

Main Subject: Vendors Debtors

– Getting far, far behind on payments to vendors
– Negotiating a deal to get caught back up, and how that worked out.
– Lines of credit and credit cards — what happened when my partner took most of our cash and paid down our L.O.C. without my permission.
– How I finally got a handle on cash flow.

Main Subject: Customers

– We live and die by the sales cycle. What it consists of in our business.
– How do/should you mask your desperation to your clients?
– Negotiating prices when the alternative to a sale is a zero bank balance.

Main Subject: My Partner

– How hard times changed our relationship. How we act as our interests converge and diverge. Keeping it civil.

Main Subject: Plan B

– The forehead smack: What would I do/have done differently to avoid this situation?
– What’s next for me, and how to set it up?
– When will I know it’s time to pull the plug?
– What are the legal consequences of going out of business? How is it actually done? How long does it take? How much does it cost?

I’d give you some more right now but I have to get a little more work done today. Also, I have to be in New York at some point this week … right now it’s looking like Thursday morning. Want to get a cup of coffee?

Looking forward to hearing from you,

Paul Downs

So that’s how I started writing here. Over the last two years I’ve written about most of the subjects on my list, and a few more. One promise I haven’t kept, though, is to document the actual failure of my business. Fortunately, it has turned around and we are now doing better than ever. We’re about to turn a profit for the second year in a row, I’ve doubled my salary, and I’ll be handing out bonuses to my workers.

I’ve always disliked the emphasis on success that is pervasive in business journalism. It seems that every story has a happy ending, with the implication that failure is unusual, and probably the fault of the failee. Which is nonsense. Starting a business, particularly for the first time, is a leap into the unknown. Mistakes are inevitable and costly. And there are outside forces, beyond anyone’s control, that can be even more destructive. Putting a happy ending on every story paints a distorted picture of what it’s like to run a business. It plays down the unending struggle that owners go through to learn and grow. I have tried to write honestly about the things that I don’t understand, or haven’t done well, and I think it has been very valuable to me to do so. I hope readers have derived some benefit as well.

Now that my business is doing better, it’s tempting to crow a bit about the things that are going well. But I don’t want to bore anyone, and I don’t want this to end up as just another “I struggled, I suffered, and then I succeeded” story. So I’m going to throw out two questions:

1) Have you heard enough?
2) What subjects would you like me to write about?

Please keep in mind that I’m only qualified to write about my own experiences. I’m not a reporter, and I don’t want to be one. But if there’s some aspect of running a small factory that you would like to know more about, let’s hear it.

Paul Downs founded Paul Downs Cabinetmakers in 1986. It is based outside of Philadelphia.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=de605ab2cdab937ab18797475dad1f8c