This is not a drill. I repeat. This is not a drill. You’ve just received an email together with 50 other recipients. To avoid severe damage to your ability to work on something meaningful, please close your email client immediately. We recommend avoiding any contact with your inbox for the next 24 hours.
Email as a communication platform was a promising technology. It made delivery of messages immediate across geographies and time zones. It didn’t require any particular skill or mediators to operate. It allowed asynchronous communication. And it did all that practically for free. Or so we believed.
In practice, at any given time, the typical inbox has dozens (or more) of unread messages and endless conversation threads. With the illusion of free and easy communication, we all became too easy on the trigger. The cost, hidden at first but no one can deny today, came in the form of constant distractions and a need to maintain and revisit numerous conversations in parallel.
Email can still be useful when used in the proper context, for the right purpose, and in an effective and thoughtful way. But after receiving an email with 150(!) other recipients a few days ago and watching the responses rapidly clutter my inbox, I can safely say we still have a long way ahead of us in learning to do that.
Adding more and more people to the To list doesn’t seem to cost us anything. Our automatic response after reading an email is hitting the Reply All button, which also appears to be absolutely free of charge. But when you acknowledge the hidden cost of each email distracting someone and potentially breaking their flow (even before considering the time it takes to read it), you realize that an email like the one I received can practically ruin an entire day’s worth of work.
An email sent to 20 people creates 20 distractions across the organization. If only five respond instinctively using Reply All, you get another 100 distractions. And in most cases, this will be just the beginning of the thread. The wider the distribution of an email, the greater the chances of someone using Reply All, and the cost of this action rapidly grows.
This might be a good place to mention that it is practically impossible to have a serious in-depth discussion over email unless a clear communication contract is defined. The probability of having an effective conversation reduces exponentially with more people in the loop. Unlike announcements or updates, in-depth discussions require a different communication flow, which involves, at some point, direct face-to-face conversation (or a highly managed and structured alternative).
If you happen to design the next generation of email apps, I beg you: please hide the Reply All button under layers of menus or design it with ten “Are you sure?” confirmations. But until then, let’s treat Reply All as a last resort. There are three significantly better alternatives for 99% of the cases. Any minute you spend considering one of these alternatives saves dozens, if not hundreds, of minutes for you and your colleagues.
There are a lot of ways to reduce the overhead of email-based communication. The most basic one is this simple rule: You don’t have to respond to every email in your inbox.
Many of us feel obligated to respond when we get an email when in fact, there are many cases where our response is neither needed nor expected. When I don’t think I have anything to contribute to the discussion, I tend to keep silent. When the email conversation is between two people, this might be considered rude, but as the list of recipients grows, I try to default to not responding.
That email with the list of 150 recipients I mentioned above was announcing an achievement, and that by itself seems like a good use for email, even with such a huge list of recipients. But then, someone just had to acknowledge how big an achievement that was, and he happened to do that by replying to everyone. And then, someone else had to thank the team, again with 150 people as the audience. At that point, another manager thought it might be strange if he wouldn’t thank the group as well, so he did.
I am willing to accept that the original email was in place. But none of the emails that followed had any value whatsoever. Thanking the team is important, but there are more effective (and less distracting) ways to do so.
Any response to any email must have tangible value. If your response doesn’t promote any predefined goal, don’t respond.
Obviously, there are cases where you do have something valuable to contribute, even if the original email was sent to dozens of people. Whether it is a mistake you identify and wish to correct, new information relevant to the topic under discussion, or even just to thank the sender for their work gathering the data. If you feel you must respond, your next option is to respond directly to the sender. That’s right, forget about the other recipients. They will thank you for that.
Of course, you might argue that any new information you need to share is of interest to all the people who got the original email. The thing is, it is more effective to let the sender take your input, possibly aggregate it with additional information from other recipients, and then share a single update. Fewer emails. Fewer distractions. More coherent and easy-to-follow discussion.
Another reason to share your feedback one-on-one is that the sender might disagree with you or have some follow-up questions. This side discussion might lead to a significant conclusion. But until it does, the other people on the thread will only get confused (and distracted many more times than needed). Resolving the issue directly with the sender and letting them share the bottom line of the discussion is the more effective approach 99% of the time. If the conflict is difficult to resolve, picking up the phone or setting up a one-on-one meeting is even more effective.
There will be cases where resolving some dilemma raised in the original email requires more than two people. The third alternative (and hopefully the least common of the three) is to reduce the distribution and handpick the people who can contribute to the discussion. The more extensive the original distribution list, the smaller the chances all recipients are essential for discussing each question and dilemma.
And again, serious discussions between more than two people are rarely effective when done exclusively via email. An email is an excellent platform for alignment and sharing information before a discussion. But when a deep conversation is needed, email’s fractured and asynchronous nature makes the conversation far less effective.
The Last Resort
Only after considering all other options and finding none suitable should you consider using Reply All. But even in these cases, don’t use it lightly.
Consider the impact of what you are about to write. Consider the follow-up emails and the snowball effect you might trigger. Even with only 20 people in the loop, your hand should shake before hitting the Reply All button. Consider the potential interruption to each person on that list. Consider the work being impacted by it.
If you are still sure Reply All is necessary, only then, go for it. And take cover.