Some Thoughts About Email

Sometimes the best response to email is to just not say anything.   In addition to the Right Speech guidelines of  “Is it kind? Is it necessary?  Is it true?”  you might  also have to ask “Is it Actually My Job?”  “Is it timely?”  “Is it useful?” “Is it congruent?”

If you’re aggravated.  If the words in your head sound snarky or short tempered even to yourself. Probably this isn’t going to go well. Managing tone in email requires first of all managing your own inner conversation.

If you haven’t given other people enough time to solve the problem themselves. Or if the email has been sitting there for too long in a fast moving situation, and you need, first, to check if you’re responding to a current reality.

If you’re just cc’d on an email.  You’re probably just being copied for information.  Maybe answering this email really isn’t your job. (Even if you have the information — see above about letting people solve their problems.)

If your answer involves information you don’t have time to actually look up but you’ll gesture vaguely in the direction that it exists.  If you’re not sure what response you want next from your email, keep thinking and refine the question or the answer.

If you’re saying something on behalf of someone else, or to protect someone else.   In general, shut up and let them speak for themselves.

I sometimes send 10, 20, even 50 emails in a day.  Do I get this right on all of them?  I’m sure I don’t.  But each time I consider these questions first, it goes better in the end.


If you ask people whom you consider to be wise and courageous about their lives, you may find that they have hurt a lot of people and made a lot of mistakes, but that they used those occasions as opportunities to humble themselves and open their hearts. We don’t get wise by staying in a room with all the doors and windows closed.  — Pema Chodron 


Metaphor of the Day take 2

Well there has been a crazy long gap between posts here, but there are still about 120 days to go until the convention, and there will probably be some ruminating afterwards.   Rather than regretting the lost summer (and spring) of blogging, I will just start where I am.

I said to someone last week, “after Labor Day, it’s a long fast downhill slide to January”, and a Former Conchair agreed. “Yes, that’s just how it is.”

So, now firmly in the slide, committed to the downhill and picking up speed rapidly.


Metaphor of the Day

Being conchair of ThatCon is like being head magician of an amazing machine.  Of which I do not know all the incantations to use all its miraculous capabilities  and besides it has a mind of its own.  And talks back.

Learning from Last Year

Every year the staff of ThatCon ends the year with a pile of notes about what to change for next year.    And then the notes go in a file and we completely forget them.

Wait, not really. The formal meeting that we call “the debrief” is not that effective a way of  fixing the institutional anything.  Three or four hours of sitting in a room hearing reports one division at a time and getting little bullets of feedback in three minute increments with no discussion time is, in and of itself, not a good way to fix anything.  I suspect that far more real change gets accomplished in the informal small-group dinners that inevitably follow.

We keep doing it because it serves a purpose.  A couple of purposes.  First of all, by having a meeting, we have a due date when the written copies of all of those reports are due.  We have about a dozen standard questions about what went well, what went badly, and what needs to be changed for the future.  Sum total of those reports, posted to our staff web site, are a great resource for those that follow.

Second of all, many volunteer organizations have trouble with giving thanks and recognition, and we’re no exception.  It’s insufficient, but necessary, for those people who led the organization to get a chance to stand up and say, this is what I did.

Third, it’s kind of a closing ritual.

Still.  Three or four hour of sitting in room hearing three minute reports, Madame Conchair, how does that jibe with your New Year’s Resolution a month ago about no boring meetings?   It’s hard to do much with this format.

You can:

  • make it run on time
  • take good notes so that people who can’t be there or can’t stay for the whole thing have access
  • make the meeting available to remote participants and let people with laptops write down their comments in real time
  • have a little bit of humor and a little bit of audio-visual
  • have name tags so we stop pretending that we all know everyone, and making the new folks feel even more out of the loop.  I could write a whole little post about that alone.

We did all those things, and the best I can say for it is it wasn’t a horrible meeting.

The best thing we did was make a reservation down the block for a bunch of pool tables for afterwards.  The fun and conversation there  made up,  a little bit,  for our yearly exercise in trying to cram a summary of thousands of hours of work into an afternoon.

But wait!  I have an idea.  For an Experiment.  Of how to do this better, more productively, and a lot more fun next year.  I’ll save that for another post though.


Worst. Idea. Ever.

Three sentence email is the idea that all emails should be no more than three sentences long.

Email takes too long to respond to,  so pledge that all emails will be answered in three sentence or less.  Well if you take that pledge,   I hope you are not using these emails to form or reinforce a relationship,  convey a complex concept,  or convince someone of a new idea.

Actually, if you are taking that pledge, I hope you’re not emailing me.

Staffing up

I skipped writing about the debrief from the last convention, and there’s a lot to say about that.  Right now I’m deep into the process of staffing next year’s con — talking to lots of people on staff, asking them to take various jobs on my convention, and juggling the org chart like a bowl of fruit at  a  clown convention.

I’ve liked the process to building a tower out of blocks.  Living blocks with their own agenda who regularly decide they don’t want to be where they are any more and wander around switching places.

We’re having trouble finding staff in many areas of the con, and somewhat paradoxically, my response to this is to break a lot of jobs into smaller pieces.   Smaller, more manageable pieces seem to increase the pool of people willing to tackle them and even more,  increases the pool of people I’m willing to trust with them.

The downside is that I’m growing the number of conchair direct reports to a number that I definitely can’t handle on my own.  I’m planning to ask my as-yet-unappointed assistant conchairs  to take groups of divisions and provide oversight to them.   This is adding a whole additional level of  challenge as  I figure out what groups logically belong together, what groups only belong together because of the personal talents of the staff members, and what people just can’t work together,  sending me back to the drawing table again.




Isn’t It Ironic?

Within a couple of days of posting the last blog post, The Pursuit of Perfection, a new and shiny opportunity came up.  It seemed like something that would be worth creating a whole host of new details and running around and changing things at the last minute — all the things that I was aware would stress people out.  Nevertheless, there’s a balance and responding to new situations is part of the balance.

Somewhere in one of the several things I have been reading recently about organizational culture and change management, I read the statement that change is more accepted when there is respect for existing roles and responsibilities.  Keeping that in mind while I made an (in the end futile) attempt to change the plans already in motion meant that at least this adidn’t do more damage than good.


The Pursuit of Perfection

I sometimes describe ThatCon as “ambitious”, by which I mean that we’re constantly trying to do better, bigger, and more exciting than we’ve done before.  One-upping our own past performance is part of the fun.   Of course there’s a downside to this.

There’s a time in the convention timeline when we have to just execute what we’ve already committed to and not subject people to more shifts and adjustments in their plans.  No matter how awesome a new idea is,  its cost in terms of stress and potential communications problems  gets magnified as we get closer to the event.  I’m noticing that different people have different thresholds for when that moment has arrived.  For me, it was about two weeks ago. For Mr. Enthusiastic (not his real name, of course), it’s possible that moment wont be here until we’re sweeping up at the end.

ThatCon will be live in less than a week.   Right now, the pursuit of perfection is causing frayed tempers and tired staff.  It’s true that every detail we get right now can save us a significant amount of time not fixing problems at runtime.  But no NEW details, please!


And to get started …

Where better to start than a New Year’s Resolution?

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’m trying to accomplish in the next year,  and one of the things I’ve been doing is laying out a calendar of the meetings we’ll have.   Years of experience have shown us that we need a certain frequency of meetings to get everything done.  But we don’t always use our meeting time well.  Gathering people into a room because it’s that day of the month again, and going around and hearing status reports without context or dialog?  Doesn’t get people engaged.

So here’s the New Year’s Resolution: no boring meetings.  I’m not sure I can pull off being entertaining and creative at all these meetings.  At least, no pointless, annoying, time-wasting meetings. The ground rules surely have to include

We all know what we’re trying to accomplish in this meeting.

The right people are present at the meeting.  Conversely, people who aren’t necessary for the purpose of the meeting don’t feel like they’re supposed to show up “just because”. 

At the end of the meeting, we know what to do next.

If we’re interested in the outcome of the process, then these meetings won’t be boring.  We’ll be able to see how these  meetings are building up towards where we’re going.

I made this resolution thinking about my work on ThatCon but immediately started thinking about the weekly status meetings I run at  $DayJob.   Well, those meetings are less than engaging, honestly.  I need the information from those status reports and I still feel like that.  $DayJob meetings have a handicap in that we’re meeting over a telephone conference line.  I’m going to think about that as I head to first status meeting of the  shiny new year tomorrow morning.