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 / Winter 2012 / Issue 69(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Offline Executive

This may also cause people to miss the big picture. Numerous analyses of the financial crisis showed executives overly focused on responding quickly to the competition, getting bogged down in the specifics of a deal, and failing to see beyond the immediate future. By giving managers the illusion of control, the rapid flow of information through new technologies threatens to rob them of real control. As demands pile up, managing can become more frenetic and superficial.

Less Chatter, More Substance

The good news is, you can regain control. But to do so, you need to know the extent of your problem. After reading this article, you may wish to do the following exercise. First, tally the number of e-mails and texts you received during a given week. Second, calculate the portion of those messages for which some action on your part was required. Third, calculate your send/receive ratio (the number of messages you sent divided by those you received). Finally, look at your origination rate (the percentage of sent messages that you initiated, rather than messages that originated elsewhere to which you replied).

In one of the lightest workweeks of the year, just after New Year’s, one of the authors conducted this exercise. He received 294 e-mails, not counting those caught by spam filters. Only 46 (about 15 percent) required a response, 107 (about one-third) went unread (because either the subject line said it all, the information was obsolete, or he regarded it as junk mail), and the rest were “for information” but could require significant time and attention down the road. He sent 64 e-mails, or one for each 4.6 received, giving him a send/receive ratio of 0.22. Of the messages sent, 33 were responses to some of the 294 messages received (a little more than 10 percent), 13 were messages received and forwarded to someone else to handle (about 5 percent), and 18 were messages he initiated (6 percent of the total received).

Assuming that the 46 action items took an average of 10 minutes each to handle, a full day of work was consumed. Add to that the 18 messages he initiated, at, say, 15 minutes each, and you have another half day. Let’s say he spent a minute each to prioritize the 294 incoming messages, and another half day is gone. In one of the lightest e-mail weeks of the year, almost half of a regular 40-hour week was spent handling e-mail! And if we think about this in the context of the approximately 247 billion e-mails sent daily (as of 2010, according to the market research firm Radicati Group Inc.), the scope and potential cost of the problem become more apparent.

Using the data you gather about your own e-mail habits, you can take measures such as the following to decrease the chatter and accentuate the substance:

• Reduce the volume. The more traffic you put on a network and the more people you involve, the more messages you should expect in return. Hold back from sending some messages until you have considered and reconsidered whether you really have something to say (and who needs to hear it).

• Segment your e-mail. You might have multiple e-mail addresses: one broadly promoted and monitored by an assistant, who has been trained to prioritize, delegate, and reply on your behalf; another open only to those in selected e-mail categories (like your clients and colleagues); and a third for a small circle of contacts, friends, and family members. Some may also have a fourth, used when registering or purchasing online, that is likely to generate spam.

• Utilize e-mail tools. Although few individuals take full advantage of these features, most e-mail client programs have built-in mechanisms, such as filters and rules, for regulating and organizing information flow. Status messages ― such as “out of office” notices ― can manage others’ expectations. As electronic assistants, such as Apple’s Siri, increase in sophistication, they are being programmed to extract underlying tasks from e-mails and gather the information needed to complete them.

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