Culture & Competency

OrchestratorMail – Bringing Structure and Clarity to Email Communication

A lot of business is conducted via email. But as with any use of language, especially in times of limited time and an overwhelming abundance of email, being clear about what you are saying (and what you are not saying) is critical. Lack of clarity leads to misunderstandings, which leads to excess work done on the wrong priorities, which leads to costly rework and mitigation, which leads to hard feelings, which leads to … a general decline in the willingness to work with other people should this become a pattern of interaction.

There’s been a lot of academic research carried out on improving the use of email as a facilitator of communication, but academics generally lack the capability to turn ideas into product improvements. For that you need entrepreneurs, technology transfer programs, and the like. From some research I’ve been reading recently, it looks to me that OrchestratorMail has leveraged a number of academic studies, taken some pragmatic stances, and come out with a cool product to “bring efficiency to email communication” (their tag line).

Here’s how it works:

1. The people at OrchestratorMail looked at the use of email communication, and discovered recurring patterns. Eg., “making a request,” “making an offer or proposal,” “sharing information,” are activities that are done regularly though email.

2. For each of these activities, there are logical response possibilities. If I say to you, “Did you have a good weekend?,” you have a limited number of logical responses – “yes,” “sort of,” and “no.” Within the confines of conversational cooperation, you can’t say “Red is my favorite color” in response to my question. It doesn’t follow. The same applies to the various regular activities identified by OrchestratorMail. Eg., for the question activity type, here’s the logical response possibilities:

For each of the six key activities – question, discuss, note, info, request, and propose – OrchestratorMail provides specific response options.

3. When creating an email message, the sender selects one of the activity types.
– OrchestratorMail integrates with email clients (such as Outlook), and there is an iPhone application available. It’s not something separate.

4. On receiving the email message, the recipient(s) see the activity type, and have click options for responding, in line with the logical response possibilities. The recipient does not require the OrchestratorMail add-in.

5. OrchestratorMail maintains a list of open email communications, via a dashboard.

My Comments
1. Some firms create a more effective email culture by setting the norm of appending particular subject line abbreviations to the message. My friend Marc Orchant – who I wish was still here – talked about this a bit. Eg., “FYI” for the information type, “RR” for response requested, and more. OrchestratorMail takes away the need to remember these, makes it more simple to create a new email message of a particular type, but more than that and in a departure from what the subject line appendage can’t do, it auto-creates a summary / dashboard of current email conversations and status. Previously that required extra manual steps. OrchestratorMail makes it happen auto-magically.

2. One of the lessons I learned from David Allen – although I’m not especially good at carrying it out everyday (!!) – is to “make the decision about what to do on new input when it shows up, not when it blows up.” Because OrchestratorMail gives a list of possible decisions for each message, it reduces the mental burden (and thus barrier) to making the decision.

3. I can imagine that if a group adopted OrchestratorMail, it could become more efficient in their communication (due to upfront clarity on what Bradley was asking Susan), and on post-sending follow-through (due to clarity on what was being asked, a list of possible responses, and a dashboard for the sender about current status of various email threads). Greater efficiency could contribute to greater effectiveness too, if by using this tool the group became better at communicating, more responsive to each other, and faster at good follow-through.

4. I’d like to see this kind of technology made more mainstream by the larger email vendors.

5. Anyone want to try it out in a controlled experiment?