Getting our Email action requests being followed up on

Scene: we are writing an important email with a request for action, and then just before we hit the Send button we stop for a second to think whether we have put it all together the right way for making sure our action request will be done.

Let’s go over a few highlights for covering the important items.


Distribution list

I believe I have mentioned that topic a few times in my previous posts. The guideline we should use is – use the minimal distribution list that is sufficient to fulfill the email purpose.

Why minimal? because we don’t want to disturb to more people than we have to. We should not disturb more people then we have to, and they in return won’t disturb us when they don’t have to (see also “The More You Send, The More You Get“). Although we should keep the distribution list minimal, the list should contain all the relevant stockholders. Otherwise, we will have to explain ourselves again for those we have missed in the distribution list.

To vs. CC

Keep the To list minimal. When I say minimal, I mean only a single person. Really, a single person. Putting a single person on the To list is the most effective way to get your action item being followed up on (see also “Adjusting Our Outlook Messages Pane: Coloring” for why the email receiver would probably give it high priority).

Sometimes we have an email containing action items for more than a single person. In such emails, we must put all the action owners on the To list. If we won’t put an action owner on the To list, we dramatically reduce our chances that this action owner would follow up on our email.

OK, so we are putting all the action owners on the To list. However, once we have done that, the chances the action items would be followed up drops dramatically (as opposed to a single To person).

Why? because of the “bystander affect“. I know it is not the same, but it is similar. I have re-wrote the bystander affect phenomenon to match an emails sending case: “it is a phenomenon that refers to cases in which individuals on the To list do not offer any means of follow up on an email action item when other people are present on the To list along with them. The probability of follow up on action items is inversely related to the number of people on the To list (bystanders). In other words, the greater the number of people on the To list, the less likely it is that any one of them will follow up on your action item.”

Frustrating… but let’s not give up just yet. We have a way to increase our chances again.

Getting the action owner attention

OK, so we understand why our chances for action-follow-up have dramatically dropped once we have more then a single person on the To list. Now we to increase our chances again.

We can do that by putting an owner name near every action items. We should put the owner name in bold and highlight. Why? because we want to catch the owner’s attention when she/he scans through the email. If the email is a long one and the owner names are not standing out, there are good chances the owners will miss it.

Some people use different highlight color for different people. I use only one color for highlight – yellow. You chose what you prefer.

Let’s put it all together

  • Minimal To list (preferably one person)
  • If more then one person, put owner near each action and bold-highlight the owner name.

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Erez Morabia

I’m an engineer and a leader in the computer software industry which is passionate about leading teams, embracing new technologies and improving soft skills for work efficiency.

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