The 5 Phases of a Reply-to-All Storm

Reply-to-all Storm: The set of events that occur when a group of people decide that the appropriate response to an email is to reply-to-all. In nearly all of these situations the replies add no value other than to fill-up the email account of everyone on the distribution list.

I’ve observed many a reply-to-all storm and it occurs to me that they have a set of phases to them, have a missed any?

Phase 1: Initial Contact

I’m not sure quite what the anatomy of an email needs to be to start a reply-to-all storm but there are some characteristics that will increase the likelihood of a storm starting. Emails with a pointless subject and equally pointless content are my favourites, they create a response in certain people that is completely disproportionate to the initial contact. It’s rare that a reply-to-all storm is generated from a meaningful email.

I’m pretty sure that the likelihood of a reply-to-all storm increases exponentially with the number of recipients on the initial distribution. Emails to 500 people aren’t likely to result in a storm, emails to 5,000 people have a much higher probability, correctly crafted emails to 50,000 people are almost certain to result in a storm.

Phase 2: Initial Reply

Someone has to be the person to start the storm. Much like a firework requires an ignition a reply-to-all storm requires someone to get everyone started. It helps if the initial reply is as benign as the initial contact.

The purpose of the initial reply email is to create a release valve that gives everyone else permission to participate in the storm. A single drip doesn’t create a flood, but it does make a pathway for what is to follow.

Phase 3: Engage the Pack

Two emails do not constitute a storm, but that’s all that the pack requires for those who are going to participate to become engaged. The pack, in general, only have one response which may use different words to these, but they are basically all saying the same things:

  • “Why was I sent this email?”
  • “Stop sending me these emails.”
  • “Remove me from this distribution list.”

None of the individuals involved in the pack realise the irony of their actions.

By this point most people have disengaged by clicking “Ignore” or “Mute” in their email app but this is where volumes come in, all that the storm needs to continue is one more person in the cohort to keep it going.

Phase 4: The Anti-Pack Becomes Engaged

The anti-pack’s role is to keep the reply-to-all storm going by telling people to stop replying-to-all. We are now in double irony territory.

These emails come in various grades depending upon the frustration of the recipient. This appears to be one of the few occasions where it has become acceptable to use capital lettering in an email subject. The use of the words “IMPORTANT”, “URGENT” or “STOP” become prevalent as does the use of bold, coloured and enlarged content all saying the equivalent of “please stop”.

Phase 5: The Die Down

Thankfully reply-to-all storms rarely last longer than a day, in my experience. You can sometimes get someone who tries to restart it the following day, not realising that everyone has already left the party, but that rarely does a restart result in a full storm emerging.

As quickly as they come, they leave.

Avoiding the Reply-to-all Storm

People have talked about getting rid of this problem for decades and yet it still persists, you may be wondering how we stop it. The simple answer is that you can’t because the instigator of the action is that weakest link in most processes – the human. You can do many things to avoid it, but stopping it altogether requires humans to behave in a logical way and that’s not going to happen.

Stop the Self-Inflicted Pain | Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we let others do it to us?

Do two posts make a series? Anyway, this is second post looking at some modern-day frustrations where we look inside things that we do that are daft and dangerous. Some of them you may not realise are doing you damage, others probably already drive you a bit loopy. Part 1 is here: Stop the Self Inflicted Pain | How Much Better Could Your Life Be?

We have three more topics for today:

Devices in Meetings

What is the purpose of a meeting? Do you know? In almost every case, the addition of screens into that meeting is harming that purpose.

Most meetings that I attend, if I attend in person, are based around a large table. The table is littered with laptops, phones and tablets. People join the meeting with every intention of contributing wholeheartedly to it, but within minutes they are distracted. They don’t mean to be, but they are powerless to stay away from the distracting movements that are occurring before them.

“But” I can hear you say…

“But, what if I want to take notes electronically?” If you are far more disciplined than me, then perhaps you can have a powerful, internet connected, multi-skilled device there in-front of you and only use it to take notes. If that is you, then I take my hat off to you, but it’s still not as good for you as writing notes.

“But, what if I need the material off my laptop to inform the meeting?” That may be a perfectly valid point, but it should be limited and clearly understood in the objectives for the meeting, often it’s an excuse.

“But, what happens if someone needs to contact me?” This is the ultimate expression of the problem. If you take a device into a meeting because you think that someone may need to contact you, then you will be spending a significant amount of time in that meeting distracted by the potential that someone is going to contact you. “Has my phone run yet?” “What’s was that email that has just come in?”

Multi-tasking

One of the main reasons that devices in meetings is such a bad idea is that it draws us into multitasking and we are very poor at multitasking.

There are numerous experiments that show our inability to task switch, but perhaps we need the kids to show us how it is (not) done:

There’s also growing evidence that the impact of persistent multitasking is lasting harm. You’re less effective while you are multitasking, but you are also permanently numbing down your brain.

Aside from the impact on our brains there are situations where multitasking is downright dangerous. Those of you who still think you can text and drive are kidding yourself:

It has become normal many of us to multi-screen in front of the TV every night. Even if we are only using our tablet or phone while the adverts are on, we are still expecting our brains to multitask. Those advert may be annoying, but rather than picking up a screen we would be much better standing up and having a stretch.

This isn’t a new subject for me, but we still have a very long way to go before people listen.

Open Plan Offices

Once the darling of every office manager the open plan office is a disaster for productivity.

You don’t need to look any further for evidence of this than this invention from Panasonic:

wearspace_rolling

These are a pair of blinkers for the office, for those times when you need some peace and quiet to get your job done! Seriously!

Again, I hear that “but” word entering into your head. The primary “but” for open plan offices is: “But, doesn’t it improve communication between teams and enable more creative interactions?” Let me put it as simply as I can: “No.”

Open plan offices drive down interactions:

The results were stark: after the shift to an open-plan office space, the participants spent 73 per cent less time in face-to-face interactions, while their use of email and instant messenger shot up by 67 per cent and 75 per cent respectively.

Most people spend their time in an open plan office with headphones plugged in which makes it difficult to know whether they are one a phone call so it’s normal to instant message them, even if they are on the next desk.

How many more things?

That’s eight different areas that we’ve covered in two posts, I wonder how many more there are? Imagine if each one improves your productivity, or wellness, by just 2% we would have improved our lives by at least 16%!

Posting to My Facebook Profile – No More

I’m no longer posting from this blog to Facebook. It’s not because I’ve decided that I no longer want to post a link to Facebook. It is because Facebook have decided that they want to take away the ability for services to do that posting to my profile on my behalf.

I used to use the publicize features WordPress to send an update as I published a new post straight to Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter, but Facebook have removed the capability to post there. I’ll still post to LinkedIn and Twitter.

Previously the way to do this was through a service like IFTTT, but they were using the same API and no longer work either.

There is an alternative, and that is to create a Facebook Page for my blog and to get the posts published there. That would require everyone I know on Facebook to also subscribe to my Facebook Page and I think that they probably have better things to do.

I could, also, click a few buttons and do it manually, but life’s too short for that.

So, for now, there will be no updates from my blog onto my Facebook Profile. But, if your normal interaction with me is via Facebook this post probably makes no difference to you, because you don’t know it exists, because this post won’t get posted on my Facebook Profile either. You won’t know what you don’t know.

“When a thing is funny, search it carefully for a hidden truth.”
George Bernard Shaw

Update: As others have reminded me, Buffer is also impacted by this change, so any updates I would have posted from Buffer won’t be coming from that route either.

Technologist – Agents of Social Change

The other day I sat down with a colleague and recorded a podcast in which we were chatting about the ways in which technology drives social change.

Out of the back of that podcast a couple of people have asked about getting more details and this is partially a response to those requests.

One of the social changes that I became aware of recently was the way in which we now use YouTube to solve problems. We used to have a friend who we would ask and they’d show us, or we’d read a manual, now we watch a video on YouTube.

Technology has always driven social change. As I sit at this desk I overlook a street that has been tarmacked to allow cars to run on it. Many of the people around me drive to work, something that they wouldn’t have been able to do before the advent of the car precipitated a social change. The arrival of the car has changed the way we now build cities and the way we interact with our neighbours. The social change caused by the car hasn’t all been positive though, decreased mobility has caused many health issues, early cars weren’t very safe,  environmental pollution is another factor, the growth of the car also lead to the creative destruction of the coach building and many horse related industries.

The people who saw the potential of the motorcar became agents of the social change that it brought. Some of those social change entrepreneurs became celebrated, others were more hidden, but eventually there were millions of people involved in that social change.

In time society recognised the change that was happening and started to build regulations around it seeking to protect against the problems being caused. Car safety tests became an industry partly because regulations demanded safer cars.

These technology driven social changes are not one-off events, they are happening all of the time, probably sparked by the first person who worked out how to create fire or perhaps even earlier than that.

As technologist we are driving changes in our society, whether we like it or not. We are the agents of social change, and that cycle of invention-change-regulation is playing out before our eyes every day.

Much of the technology change is enabling things that our parents could only dream of. I can’t imagine being in a situation where I can’t communicate with all of my family members. The Internet has enable boundless communication to almost every corner of the world, and mostly for free. Every day I talk to people from at least two other continents and often more than that. That’s changing the way that our society works. I have friends who speak to their adult children every day and sometimes multiple times a day. That wasn’t possible when I was a young adult, even if I wanted to speak to my parents every day, I couldn’t afford to.

There are technologies coming that will significantly change the way we live our lives in the future. There’s much talk about the impact of robots and jobs that will be impacted, but there’s also a whole set of new industries that are going to be enabled. Robots will give some people with medical challenges a quality of living that they can’t achieve. We’re already having conversations about the regulatory frameworks that are going to be needed for those robots.

The in-ear translator is already here, if not mainstream, a role we might have expected to be done by a fish at some point in the future 🙂 These are just the latest in a growing list of technologies that we may choose to wear about our person in the future.

There are a number of recent examples of the regulatory steps in the cycle.

The World Economic Forum 2018 at Davos is currently meeting and one of the big subjects is the impact of social media companies:

Social networks would be regulated “exactly the same way that you regulated the cigarette industry”, Benioff told CNBC at the World Economic Forum in Davos. “Here’s a product – cigarettes – they’re addictive, they’re not good for you, maybe there’s all kinds of different forces trying to get you to do certain things. There’s a lot of parallels.

“I think that, for sure, technology has addictive qualities that we have to address, and that product designers are working to make those products more addictive, and we need to rein that back as much as possible,” he added.

Facebook should be ‘regulated like cigarette industry’, says tech CEO – The Guardian

And also:

The prime minister is to ask investors to put pressure on tech giants to deal with extremist content on social networks.

Theresa May will say at the World Economic Forum in Davos that investors should consider the social impact of the firms they invest in.

Social networks need to stop providing a platform for terror, extremism and child abuse, she will stress.

Davos: Theresa May to warn tech firms over terror content – BBC News

Which is an interesting call from Theresa May as that’s exactly what some Apple’s major investors did recently:

Two of the largest investors in Apple are urging the iPhone maker to take action against smartphone addiction among children over growing concerns about the effects of technology and social media on the youth.

In an open letter to Apple on Monday, New York-based Jana Partners and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) said the firm must do more to help children fight addiction on its devices.

Apple investors call for action over iPhone ‘addiction’ among children – The Guardian

Meanwhile invention continues at a pace and the agents of social change go about exploiting that technology for the benefit of customers and the cycle moves on.

An inventors moral responsibility for their invention is an long debated subject. I think that the moral responsibility on those of us who utilise a technology to do so in a way that doesn’t bring harm is a bit clearer, but what do we do about all of the unforeseen consequences? Perhaps that’s a post for another day.

YouTube is now your Mum/Dad/Practical Friend

One of the things that fascinates me is the social change that is driven by the internet and internet services.

Once upon a time we would answer practical problems in one of two ways:

1. Ask someone we trusted

The question would normally be to our mum or dad or to that a practical friend who knows how to do anything. Their proximity would allow them to show us how to do something in person, or talk us through it over the phone. Sometimes their answer would be to talk to someone else that they know who is practical in a particular way: “Talk to your grandma she’s really good at buttonholes.”; “Ask Eddie he knows how to protect a Koi pond from herons.”; “Ask Mary she’s good for advice on home automation systems.”

As a result our wisdom was limited by their knowledge, or the knowledge of the people that they know. What’s more we only knew if their knowledge was any good when we tried what they suggested. We had to decide whether to try what the suggested by judging their level of confidence in their knowledge. I suspect we’ve all had friends who’ve confidently told us to do something that has later turned out to be the last thing we should have done.

This was the normal way of finding out how to do something.

2. Go to the library or take a course

If we needed to know something outside the knowledge of the individuals we trust we may go as far as to do some formal research. This research would have mandated a trip to the local library and wading through reference manuals and the like. In extreme cases we may even take a course on how to do something, but this was only for the truly dedicated.

This was not the normal way of finding out how to do something, it was only used in exceptional circumstances.

Along comes YouTube (other video sources are available)

For many YouTube has now replaced your mum, dad and practical friend. it’s even replaced the library and training courses for some.

I’ve had two situations recently where this was the case:

Windscreen Washer Failure

It’s been an interesting winter here in the UK with different whether each day, switching from warm and wet to bitterly cold. Windscreen washers have, therefore, become a vital part of road travel, when the washer in the car that my wife drives failed it was important that it was fixed.

My first instinct was that it was just a fuse problem so opened up the in-car manual to see which one, only to discover that the windscreen washer wasn’t listed. Fortunately YouTube had most of the answer – someone called Andy Robertson had experienced exactly the same problem and posted a video. I say most of the answer because the fuse box that Andy shows isn’t quite the same as the one that’s in our Polo, but it did allow me to know that it was a 7.5 amp fuse and following a short process of illumination to find the one that had blown.

iPhone Charging Problem

I’ve been struggling to charge my iPhone recently – I’d plug a lightening cable into it and leave it, when I came back to it later the cable would be slightly out of the socket and no charging will have taken place. Having tried a number of different cables I realised that the problem was with the socket in the iPhone itself, not the cables. Going to the Apple Store to get it fixed sounded like an expensive proposition so I took to YouTube for help. It wasn’t long before I found a set of videos from people all telling me that it was likely to be dust and/or lint in the mechanism and simply to get a pin and dig it out. Putting a metal thing into a charging point didn’t sound like a good idea, but the basic idea worked a treat and now my phone stays plugged in.

I’m not sure which of my practical friends would have known to do that, mu parents certainly wouldn’t.

The New Normal

These are a couple of personal examples of what I think is the new normal way of working out how to do something, but it’s not just me. The car fuse video has been watched over 27,000 times, the iPhone one nearly 700,000 times. A friend recently used another YouTube video to work out how to get a broken headphone jack out of an iPad. Another friend gives overviews of his allotment that people use to get advice on the technicalities of an allotment and allotment life.

I wonder how many of the 1 billion hours of YouTube video that is watched every day is so helping people with their how do I questions?

Co-location – the Super Food of Collaboration

In the western world we have a huge choice of foods that we can eat. We know which ones are good for us, and which ones aren’t, yet many of us are overweight, getting fatter and suffering from the health consequences of poor dietary choices.

The obesity problem is worse in areas of low income – why? One of the  main reasons is that good, healthy food is expensive and for the most part cheap food is unhealthy. This cheap food is normally processed, has travelled a long way from areas of low cost production and is purchased on a whim without the burden of preparation. It makes us feel good because it’s full of sugars and fats that our addicted brains crave but it doesn’t provide a healthy nutritional diet.

Teleconferences are the fast-food of collaboration. We set them up without consideration because they are cheap and immediately accessible. They allow us to use resources from wherever they are in the planet without consideration for those resources and, sometimes, with little consideration for the quality of those resources. They help us to believe that we are collaborating, which we are, but only in the same way as a fast-food burger is food.

Co-located collaboration is different, like organic wholefood it’s more expensive but it’s significantly better for us. The extra expense makes us respect it more so we make sure that we get all of the value out of it that we can. Organic wholefood requires extra preparation to get the right ingredients together but the results are amazing and the same is true for co-located collaboration. Co-located collaboration feeds all of our collaboration dietary needs in a way that the fast-food teleconferences never can, we never really get to know people on teleconferences, they’re just voices. There is marked difference in the level of collaboration that we achieve with people that we have physically met compared to those we haven’t. The most healthy collaboration is achieved when we are co-located with people we know well, this is the super-food of collaboration.

The occasional fast-food teleconference collaboration isn’t going to kills us, but it’s not healthy to live on it.

Managing the white-space | Leaving the smaller screens behind in iOS 11

One of the things I’ve noticed as the user of both an older and a newer iPhone is that the 4.7″ screen that is on the iPhone 6/7/8 is now the baseline standard being used for iOS design decisions.

In iOS 11 Apple have made a number of design decisions that increase the amount of screen being used by items.

In the AppStore, as an example, the icons have got bigger and the titles have got bigger, so that the number of apps you see in the Update section have reduced and the titles are often truncated on a 4″ iPhone 5/5S:

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AppStore Updates on the iPhone 5S 4″ Screen with iOS 11.

Another example of the design choices being made is the lock screen and associated notifications. If you have a clock on your lock screen and you are playing some audio then notifications are almost useless because you only get part of the first notification without scrolling:

Lock Screen
Lock Screen on the iPhone 5S 4″ Screen with iOS 11

Screen design decisions are a balance between content and white-space, white-space is the space between the content. Good design is defined by the white-space more than the content. That’s where the iOS 11 design decisions are being driven from, as screens have got bigger on the iPhone 6/7/8 (4.7″) and the 6/7/9 Plus (5.5″) Apple are increasing the amount of white-space so that the design stays good on those devices.

Anyone who has used a corporate application will know how awful it is when white-space is ignored and content is crammed on to screens. Apple could have used the extra screen space on the newer iPhone models to squeeze in more content, which I’m sure they’ve done, but they’ve balanced it with an increase in white-space. Those design decisions mean that the content on the 4″ screen feels like it’s a bit too spaced out.