The Doctor Is In: Managing your Email Inbox

Lucy-van-pelt-1-Any Snoopy fans out there? Yes, I know, I’m dating myself, as Snoopy was en vogue back in the 70’s. But I’m sure those of a certain age recall Lucy and her psychiatry booth. She charged a whopping 5 cents per question. As a software product manager my advice appears to be free, but comes at a very high cost.

Lately, I’ve begun to feel like my entire job is about dispensing guidance; maybe not always psychiatric guidance but close enough. I receive inquiries from every corner of the company, about every imaginable topic that might have something to do with your product line. Some people even think that you can make miracles happen, which is flattering and disturbing all at the same time.

Working at a global software company means that every morning I wake up with (at least) 30 new requests for guidance in my email inbox. This means I spend a disproportionate amount of my day focused on ministering to the masses, who struggle with the perceived complexities of my product line. In some cases, I am doing activities that are not exactly my job, but are really the requestor’s job. Huh. It also means that I need to somehow maintain an encyclopedic knowledge of EVERYTHING that has to do with my product, corporate license, contract and pricing policies, and oh so much more. I find that there is very little time left for any type of product planning, product research, market research, or anything else that a product manager should really be doing. What’s a product psychiatrist to do? What would Lucy do?

I have a couple of radical ideas. One is to abolish email entirely. Yeah, that’s not going to happen. So scratch that, and try idea number two: don’t respond to any emails except for 1) requests from upper management (they REALLY need your guidance), 2) emails about critical sales deals that are on the path to being closed. And, never respond to emails where you are only on the CC line. In fact, really gloss over those bad boys, as those are usually delivered to 20 people selected at random (scatter gun approach). My theory is that anybody who desperately needs to speak with you will pick up the phone and call you. And those who can get their act together to answer their own question will do just that and you will not hear from them again. I know that your instinct is to answer ALL those emails and be a hero to everyone and save the day! But you need to let that hero thing go, because nobody ever got promoted for answering all their emails, whereas people do get promoted for having fabulous product ideas and making the company lots of money with their product line.

I have done some trial runs (dare I say a PoC?) and find that the smart requestors do indeed call me. For the less intuitive, I have advised them with comments like, ‘I get over 100 emails every day, if you want a fast response, try the old fashioned way and take the time to dial my number and CALL me.’ Ok, perhaps not phrased exactly like that, but you get the picture. I must warn you that there is a drawback to this method; you may be labeled as ‘unresponsive’. And some are quite vocal about their displeasure with unresponsive product managers. But on a scale where one end is being a great product manager and the other end is being everyone’s favorite Girl Friday – I am willing to take the risk. Especially because it is far more painful (and potentially career limiting) to be labeled as ‘unproductive’ where your product is concerned, and there is danger of that if you get stuck in the psychiatry booth.

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