Why do doctors have pagers? Why do towns have emergency sirens? Why does Commissioner Gordon have a Bat Signal that lights up the sky?
Because when you need to communicate about an urgent matter — a patient is Code Blue, there’s a tsunami headed your way, the Riddler just escaped from prison — you want a communication channel that by itself indicates urgency.
Unfortunately for us, people shovel all types of communication into email, both urgent and not. As a result, there’s no way to distinguish between urgent and non-urgent messages without diving into your inbox. Most messages aren’t urgent at all, of course, but the possibility — and the anxiety — exists that people might miss something critical, like a major product quality problem. And the fear that something urgent might be lurking in the pile of 127 unread messages is one of the key factors making us feel overwhelmed.
The R&D engineers at one of my clients have done some interesting work in an effort to improve email overload. They’re inundated with email (like most people), and they’re obligated to check messages as they come in because there might be something urgent. But unlike most groups who simply wave their hands feebly and bemoan their fate, they created a standard communication protocol to address the problem. This protocol determines what communication channel to use for a specific type of communication:
Pay attention to the essential benefit here: everyone has agreed that email is NOT to be used for urgent or complex issues. This agreement really is significant, because it unshackles people from their iPhones during meetings, or product development work, or strategic planning. Or their kids’ soccer games. Or dinner. Or sex. Which means that there’s now a fighting chance to have some uninterrupted time to, you know, think.
It makes sense that they’ve chosen not to use email for urgent issues. After all, if something is really urgent, an asynchronous communication tool like email is a poor fit. But the really interesting decision is not using email for complex issues. They realized that email related to complex issues typically results in a lengthy (and unnecessary) email exchange clarifying and explaining the issue—both because people often have difficulty writing clearly, and also because they typically skim emails instead of reading deeply. They may send supporting information via email, but phone or face-to-face communication is the most efficient way to communicate about a complex issue.
This protocol isn’t a breakthrough along the lines of, say, cold fusion. (Or duct tape. Or Oreos.) However, the clear expectations and standards around the use of communication tools give the engineers license to ignore the ding of their email and focus on real value-creating activities.
This exact protocol might not work for you. You might want to use text messages, or IM, interpretive dance, or semaphore for certain kinds of communication. (You never know.) Every company has an idiosyncratic culture and needs. The important thing isn’t how you define your communication protocol, but that you define it. If you do so, you’ll have taken a big step towards reducing email volume and information overload.