Photo: Susan Merrell

Entries in productivity (6)


Humanizing your emails

Recently a colleague emailed my intern group list-serve without a clear salutation, addressing them as "you." One intern replied to the email, triggering a copy to the whole list-serve, thinking the you was in fact just her, rather than the collective you.

This got me thinking about how often emails mis-fire in this way, and about the root causes.

In today’s world of mobile devices, I have noticed that people sometimes reply to emails without a full appreciation of who was cc’d on the original email, or whether their reply might be going to many people. I think this happens because mobile devices do not display all the meta-data about a message the way we typically see them on larger computer screens.

Sometimes someone who is bcc’d and receives the message on a mobile device, replies to all because their phone does not show cc and bcc lines. Even though this does not reply to all the people who were bcc’d, it DOES reply to all who were cc’d. This can be extremely problematic.

Therefore, for professionalism and safety and quality reasons, I recommend the following practices, which I try to model:

Begin your emails with a salutation that makes it clear who is being addressed, such as “Dear X”. My colleague did not do this, and the use of "you" may have inadvertently misled each recipient.

If you are cc’ing anyone, mention this explicitly after the salutation, such as “Dear X, and cc’ing Y and Z”

Never bcc anyone. If you want them to see the message, forward it to them after sending.

Be aware when replying to a message that if the message originated as part of a distribution list (list-serve), your reply may go back to the whole list-serve by default, even if it looks like you are only responding to a named sender.

Generally be aware that people may be reading your email on a mobile device with a small screen and more limited formatting options, and in different time zones on devices that may or may not adjust for time zone differences.

If you can, avoid attachments. Paste useful content into the body of the message – with minimalist formatting. People often don’t see that attachments are included, especially if they are checking email on phones. Recently I was in a meeting where someone had received a bunch of attachments but denied getting attachment #7. Their email program (Outlook) displayed two lines of attachments and then you have to scroll to see more attachments. Which this person did not know to do. Therefore they kept denying that they had received attachment 7, even as the sender insisted it was attached. Attachment 7 was a critical part of a proposal that ideally would have been reviewed before the meeting. So if you do include attachments, list them in the body of the email in a numbered list.

Take the time to compose emails that short-circuit several cycles of communication. For example, when trying to arrange a meeting with someone, propose 1 definite time and offer 3 available backup times. Specify time zone. Always include an absolute date (never “tomorrow” or “Friday”). See my blog article on fully specified requests at When a meeting is confirmed, I will typically send an email with all the pertinent details (date, time, call-in information etc) and send a calendar invite with that information in both the "location" and note fields. The huge advantage of calendar invites is that they generally appear grayed out on people's calendars until they are accepted. Even if recipients overlook the email, they will usually notice something appearing on their calendar. However, email systems are not fully interoperable, so calendar invites may not function for others the way they do for you. That's why I do send a duplicate email summarizing the calendar item for people who are outside of my organization.

Generally in all communications, do some perspective switching and anticipate how the message is going to be received, accessed, interpreted, stored, and shared. The best book I have ever read on strategic communication, in which you anticipate the first, second, and third-order effects of your messages, is the book “When talking makes things worse”. Out of print, available at your library. Along these lines, use the subject line to summarize any request and deadline, as recipients do review subject lines while screening emails. Make judicious use of any ways to flag emails. My email system allows me to add an urgent mark (!), plus request a delivery receipt and read receipt, and schedule a reminder to emails. These layers communicate to recipients that I really, really want to make sure the email does not slip through the cracks. Overusing such flags will backfire, but generally I have good results with them. However, as with other issues, you cannot assume they will work similarly on all email systems.

As for the actual contents of the email, I try to limit each email to a single topic that matches the subject line, and structure the email so that a recipient can respond with a yes or no or very simple and short response, and move our collaboration forward. Finally, as with all communication, proceed with curiosity, fallibility, and perspective-taking. The primary implication of these is that I am always testing my assumptions with my respondents ("Did I understand correctly that you are requesting X, or am I missing something?"). Look over an email and count the question marks before you send it. Typically people make 10 or more statements for every question. When I review transcripts of really productive conversations, I find ratios more in line with 3 or 4 statements for every question. How do you feel when people communicating with you include questions to test their assumptions or solicit your views? My guess is you feel included and collaborative. The philosopher Immanuel Kant pointed out that a key ingredient of humanism was treating people as ends in themselves, not as means to an end. My experience is that asking questions is inherently humanizing.

When I look over these strategies for composing professional emails, they boil down to reconstructing the context for face to face, heart to heart communication that is otherwise likely to go missing from the electronic medium. Context such as the who, what, when, where, and why surrounding the communication. Context is humanizing. What a strange word, humanizing. Why would we need to humanize anything that we are involved with? Isn't our mere presence in an activity inherently humanizing? Well, no, not in the sense of being humane to each other. Something we need to keep in mind when communicating through machines.

As I write this, I've begun to hum one of my favorite songs, Rehumanize Yourself, by The Police, on the great album, Ghost in the Machine. "I work all day in a factory/I'm building a machine that's not for me/There must be a reason that I can't see/You've got to humanize yourself." If we are to build machines through our emails, let's build them for and with each other.


High level guide to making flowcharts


Flow charts are CRUCIAL visual aids in modern word processing. I rely on them heavily. I use a process that allows me to embed flowcharts in Microsoft Word documents while future-proofing them as much as possible - meaning I want to be able to edit the flowchart in a Word document at some later date. So, no pasting images/pictures of flowcharts.

I have found some issues with creating flowcharts in Office 2010. So here's what I do.

-        Create the flow chart in a powerpoint slide using CONNECTORS instead of arrows. Drag the connectors until they “bond” with the shapes they are connecting (the dot will turn red instead of green when you get the connector lined up with a little placeholder on each side of a shape)

-        Create text as a text box and then add a shape as a border. Do NOT write text and then draw a border around it (like a rectangle or circle). Add the shape as a BORDER. Text should be centered in the box. Boxes should be aligned using powerpoints “Align center” or “Align middle”. This will make the connectors look straight as well. Note that getting things perfectly aligned may require that the dimensions of the connected boxes (height and width) are the same across several boxes.

-        Now, in Powerpoint, select the entire slide in the SLIDE SORTER view of Powerpoint. Copy it to the clipboard. Do NOT try to copy a subset of the flowchart by lassoing and selecting.

-        Switch to Word, and use the PASTE SPECIAL command (look it up and make paste special your friend) to paste as a Microsoft Powerpoint Slide Object.

-        Now, when you want to edit the flow chart, right click on the slide object and choose “Slide Object, OPEN” (not edit). This opens the flowchart in Powerpoint with all commands available. I've found that using EDIT instead of OPEN creates issues, as my diagrams shrink when I close.

The reasons for following this admittedly complex procedure  include:

-        First and foremost, flow charts should be easy to edit by future users of your documents. This means moving boxes and having arrows stay connected. It means minimizing formatting. I can spend 4 hours on a flowchart easily; and I don’t want future editors (including me) to experience any barriers to adding a step or moving a box.

-        Word 2010 does not have good connector capabilities for flowcharting but Powerpoint does. (This is one of these aggravating examples where Word 2010 is worse than previous editions.) That’s why you edit flowcharts in Powerpoint.

-        Powerpoint also has better alignment and other graphics facilities than Word

In general, I write a LOT of flow charts and I almost NEVER use anything exotic (like Inspiration or Visio) because I want future users of my documents (protocols etc) to be able to edit the flow charts with the a very widely available program. So I make sure they show up as powerpoint-editable objects in Word. 



Continuous improvement through critical reflection

One of the mantras I have adopted in my life is: "there is no such thing as failure, only feedback."

Corollary: Back in my days at a high tech startup, my colleagues and I would regularly try to raise money from venture capitalists. We would come back to the office after making our pitch and employees would ask, "Well, did you get the money?" Our CEO would say, "No, but we learned a lot." So the expression was born in our office: "Learning is what you get what you don't get a check."

I do like to extract maximum learning from failure or feedback or not getting a check or whatever you want to call it. I have evolved a short template for reflecting critically on my performance. After any experience (e.g. giving a talk, putting on a training workshop, writing a grant, etc), I write down my answers to the following questions:

1. Current goals? What was I trying to accomplish? (These are usually carried over from a previous attempt, see last item below.)

2. Achievements? It's important to note and celebrate the ways in which I did accomplish or contribute to my goals. As my daughter's first-grade teacher says: give yourself a pat on the back.

3. Failures? What did not go well or according to plans, hopes, desires?

4. Success factors? What did I or other people say or do, or what was happening in the environment, that contributed to the achievements above?

5. Barriers? What did I or other people say or do, or what was happening in the environment, that contributed to the failures (or inhibited the achievements) listed above?

6. Next goals? What am I going to work on next time? I carry those over to the next performance.

Just as an example, here is my reflection after conducting a workshop that I give periodically on decision making:

Goals? – experiential; shorter (6 hours); same content. Focused only on skills.

Achievements? Individual, realistic practice (e.g. with computers), focused (not distracted by sharing  a computer). Finished on-time. Students were all engaged, even at the end of a long week. Students did arrive at skills they will need (confident).

Failures? Half-trained (not a lot of process training); Not ready to initiate a phone call; Did not present the service delivery lifecycle very well; (in SF Margot took us through the clinic before, recording of Margot initiating a phone call). The context. This was presented week before.

Success Factors? Computers available: kept away until they needed them (no checking emails). Experiential worked (practice, role playing). Undergrads had very fresh perspectives. No model clash.

Barriers? Limited time availability (of medical students – almost sporadic availability).

Goals for next time? Integrate the skills and process training? Immediate follow up and practice? Pipeline of patients waiting to be served? Process training would include scripts, practice calling, etc. Add time and split between two days? Video clip of process (project for student). Course for undergrads (intense), weave in medical students. 

In addition to using this framework to reflect episodically, I use it every week with my team. Each of us responds to those six questions with reference to the week we just completed.

Here are some excerpts of my reflections from last week (redacted for privacy):

LAST TIME GOALS  -  Finalize performance reviews; Film SCOPED promo; Fix budget for Mendocino in CMS Innovation; SSU affiliate agreement; BCT paper – check calculations; SV/O2O/MAP manuscripts; Reimbursements.

ACHIEVEMENTS - Performance reviews; SCOPED promo v1; CMS Innovation grant submitted; BCT paper moving along; PANCAN; Shanti; QL WCRC; IHPS adv bd meetings - leadership summit idea; CERC idea well received. Some progress on SSU.

FAILURES - Did not get to O2O/MAP manuscripts; reimbursements; CS video and marketing materials; 

BARRIERS - Grant collaborator canceled meeting, did not complete draft on time.

SUCCESS FACTORS - Grant collaborator put more resources on project and team rallied to submit a promising proposal.

UPCOMING GOALS - Mtg with John and Jill; SV/O2O/MAP manuscripts; SSU; CHQI Feb privacy mtg; reimbursements; Feedback; BMB syllabus; Promo video to Trina

Each week I share my reflections with my team, and they share theirs with me, and we discuss all the elements. It's a powerful way of going beyond setting/reporting on goals... to reflecting on the dynamics surrounding our productivity.


Samsung U5 mp3 digital audio-recorder

I use digital audio a lot in my work. I have a simple set of requirements for recorders: must record straight to mp3; must connect by USB to a computer; must have a rechargeable internal lithium-ion battery... For years these simple requirements have been somewhat hard to come by. Lately I'm using (and recommending) the Samsung U5.


Squarespace website authoring and hosting

When personal blogs and websites took off, I wanted to create my own but I didn't want to become a computer programmer. I wanted an authoring environment that would provide great flexibility with a point and click UI. That probably describes quite a few tools now, but I've stuck with the first one I've found: Squarespace. For a long time Squarespace was just some young computer prodigy named Anthony Casalena. Then, in a small world coincidence, my childhood buddies at Index Ventures made an investment and Squarespace is going even bigger. I like the fact that it is easy to use but has some sophisticated features, like user access controls so I can create password-protected portions of my websites for collaborators.


Freemake video editing software

Do you ever feel caught in the middle of video format wars? I often need to edit video for personal or professional reasons. I'll spare you a lot of the technical issues, partly because I don't fully understand them, but for years I have suffered from having video in, say, mp4 format, and wanting to display it using, say, Microsoft Powerpoint. I needed to convert from one video format to another. I spent a lot of time shuttling between Quicktime software and VLC Media Player. RealPlayer proved useful, but came with a lot of overhead - additional software that I didn't want nor fully trust. Along comes Freemake, a free software program that provides a very user-friendly interface for editing and converting video.