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There are a couple coworkers who frequently respond to an email after other followup emails have been sent out in a thread, which fragments (splits) conversations and leads to confusion, inefficiencies, and frustrations.

For example, imagine this sequence involving at least these 4 people, always using Reply All:

  1. Project manager 1

The customer has reported that X is not working when doing Y with error message Z.

  1. Tech support

Please refer to this section in the customer-facing FaQ: ... It is caused by A which is fixed by doing B instead. This unfriendly user-experience has been documented with ticket ### and I have escalated its priority.

The customer has reported that X is not working when doing Y with error message Z.

  1. Project Manager 2 (replying to the first email in the thread)

This issue also affects X2.

The customer has reported that X is not working when doing Y with error message Z.

  1. Supervisor (a couple hours later, responding to latest in the conversation)

Why is nobody looking into this? We are losing money while their system is down and it is harming our reputation!

This issue also affects X2.

The customer has reported that X is not working when doing Y with error message Z.

What seems to happen is that the fragmentor (project manager 2) starts typing up a response to the first email, and during the interim someone else (tech support) sends a response. The fragmentor then misses this helpful notice that Outlook provides, and sends the email anyway:

You are not responding to the latest message in this conversation.

What I always do when I see this notice, is to select everything I just composed, copy it, open the latest message, and paste it in a reply there.

How can this behavior be gracefully corrected? I've already tried being nice and individually talking to the culprits about the issue multiple times, but the lesson is not learned. Playing the blame game and forwarding the fallout of their behavior will just result in defensive behavior and harm synergy, yet appears to be the only response that might close the loop of action and consequence to their inadvertently-destructive behavior.

  • 17
    How can you deal with this? Stop using email as an issue tracker! – Philip Kendall May 22 at 17:27
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    Not everyone uses outlook in the same way (or at all as there are other email clients) and will see that message – Joe W May 23 at 3:22
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    While it's true that emails shouldn't be used as an issue tracker, there might also be emails that are not related to issues, I believe what OP provided is just an example. – lawful_neutral May 23 at 16:21
  • @JoeW In this case everybody is using Outlook (same version, same operating system, same domain, etc). – Elaskanator May 24 at 19:13
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    @JoeW if it was intentional then he wouldn't (or at least shouldn't) have written "nobody is looking into this", but "the workaround didn't work" instead. – Helen - down with PCorrectness May 26 at 8:33
15

How can this behavior be gracefully corrected?

Seems that e-mails is not working as expected for your issue tracking, so you should explore other options.

Most (if not all) code repositories have tools or plugins available for issue tracking (like, say, Jira). You should favor those instead e-mails for issue tracking.

E-mails are useful for other situations, but when discussion and back-and-forth clarifications are needed issue-trackers are better (in fact, using Instant Messages would be better in this situation than e-mails... but I do suggest you use some sort of issue-tracking software).

  • i think this is the answer, but i would like you to stress that "customer has reported that X is not working when doing Y with error message Z" is 100% use case for Issue Tracker of some kind (Jira, Basecamp, even Trello or whatever else) – aaaaa says reinstate Monica May 22 at 18:32
  • yes, this seems perfect scenario for issue Tracking software. IM is better than Emails here... but Issue tracker is way better than IM and Email – DarkCygnus May 22 at 18:37
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    IM does not retain information, and doesn't serve as a "single point of truth" for future similar incidents. I am surprised, IM ius not used just for raising attention – aaaaa says reinstate Monica May 22 at 18:39
  • I see, this is an X Y problem where the actual problem (and root cause) is management imposing the wrong tools for the job? – Elaskanator May 22 at 19:02
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How would it be if you wrote this fifth email:

It seems like "Tech Support's" email has been dropped from the thread. There s/he reported on how the problem is to be tackled.

Why is nobody looking into this? We are losing money while their system is down and it is harming our reputation!

This issue also affects X2.

The customer has reported that X is not working when doing Y with error message Z.

After you doing this for a small number of emails I'd bet that people would catch on.

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    Attaching the dropped email to the message would also be useful. – BSMP May 23 at 16:38
1

From looking at the chain closer it is hard to see if anything was actually dropped as the first reply from tech support sounds more like a work around as talks about doing something different to get it working rather then putting something in place that would get it working the original way. Here is a quick example of my reading of the email chain.

  1. Customer has reported that they are not able make purchases on their account using google chrome.

  2. TS. That is caused by an issue with the code and can be fixed by using internet explorer instead

  3. This also impacts apple safari as well

  4. The final email asking about why no one is looking into this.

Just because a fix for the issue was mentioned in the second step doesn’t mean that someone is looking into the issue or more needs to be done.

Something that needs to be remembered when replying to email chains is you should reply to the one you are actually replying to and not just the latest one in the thread as it can become very confusing very fast if I am reading a response to an email and I have to scroll down sever pages to read what the response is talking about.

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    I think it was an example. – Helen - down with PCorrectness May 27 at 13:59
  • @Helen If it was an example it was a bad one and doesn't give anything to support that people where losing track of what was happening. – Joe W May 27 at 20:17
  • You make a good point about the confusion caused by lots of activity in the email thread that occurs faster than your own response, but that is an issue of Reply All with too large of an uncoordinated, participating audience, rather than cutting an email conversation. – Elaskanator May 28 at 21:13

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