Cat Herding Tips

For better or worse, part of my current role requires me to get really busy people to answer my questions or give me information so I can ultimately help them do their jobs better. For example, I’m currently gathering some information on business challenges from the members of the test leadership team at Microsoft in order to help them prioritize the cross-company work they want to focus on in the next fiscal year.

After our last meeting, I sent meeting notes to the leadership team alias, along with a request to provide the information by the end of the month.

Two weeks later, I had two responses. This was not, of course unexpected, but I had a secret trick that has never failed me. I’ve discovered in my career that the more senior people get, the less likely they are to respond to email sent to an alias – regardless of the seniority of the people on the alias. I could have sent a follow up email to the alias, but it would have met the same fate as the first attempt.

Instead, as mundane as it sounds, I typed up an email in Word, and then used the mail merge feature to send each TLT member a “personal” email requesting the information (boy, I hope nobody on the alias reads this blog and discovers my secret). The result was immediate success. I sent the email to 24 people on Saturday evening, and by Sunday afternoon I had 3 responses. I currently have 10 responses, along with promises for at least a few more by Wednesday. It’s a dirty trick, but it works – people just love personal attention, and if you find a way to give it to them (even if you cheat just a little), they will likely give you what you’re asking for.

Testing posts will reconvene shortly – thanks for allowing the diversion.

Comments (2)
  1. R.K.Johnston says:

    Hey Alan, I did read the blog post and I don’t recall getting one of those emails.  I must have deleted it or you deleted me from the mail merge.

  2. Hi Alan,

    Thanks for dealing with a universal problem in organizations! You are correct about cat herding. It is indeed difficult to get busy people to take on more on their plate, especially if the matter is not urgent.

    Apart from mail merge and simple follow up emails, there are other methods of follow up after a meeting. Let me list out a few "interesting" ones:

    1. Use email features: Put a "read receipt" on the email: It is optional for a recipient to send a "read receipt" on opening the email.  However, some recipients feel obligated to actually read an email when they have sent a "read receipt" to the sender. Email also has the feature like follow up/ review etc. This feature if used professionally can provide a gentle unobtrusive reminder to the recipient.
    2. Questions by any of the recipients: Sometimes, a recipient may perform a "Reply to All" and ask questions regarding the meeting notes. This has the effect of indicating to the rest of the group that at least someone in the group is serious about the action items and is likely to start work on it very soon. Even if you do not hear from the others, you could be certain that the emails are being read.

    3. A follow up email by a manager senior to all the recipients: If you can get a very senior person to endorse the importance and urgency of the action items from the meeting, you may expect good results.

    4. Email (mail merge or otherwise) with a copy to the recipient’s manager: This method could produce fast results because people would always like to appear productive and professional in the perceptions of their managers. However, if a recipient is busy with more urgent or important work, she might privately resent such an email.

    5. Personal visit: I do not know if this is practical in terms of personal time required to do so, especially if it is a large group of people. However, this method produces good results and is recommended when the other methods have not produced the desired results with some group members.


    Inder P Singh

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