Productivity gains can come from small, simple changes

When Scientific Time Sharing Corporation was founded in 1969, it had a problem. It had nine locations and only six full-time employees. How could they communicate and coordinate when there were seldom more than two or three people in the same location or place? The obvious answer was email. The first primitive version went live in January 1970, followed by a fully functioned system built on our ground-breaking APL*Plus shared file system. That email system, written by Larry Breed, became STSC’s central communications technology.

666 Box, as the application was named, had all the features you’d expect, including the ability to CC and BCC users. (It also had a feature I sorely miss, the ability to withdraw an angry or poorly thought-out message.) When Mary, STSC’s Assistant Controller, and I decided to get married, it was first announced to the entire company a couple of days before we eloped in 1972. (I still have a copy of that email and the responses it generated.)

I made one major contribution to the system. I noticed that many people were spending a lot of time creating and reacting to where their name showed up on the CC (carbon copy) list. Colleagues would see that their name showed up fifth on the TO or CC list in emails from the president. I’d hear people saying things like, “I used to be listed third, have I done something wrong?” The president’s secretary would take an extra ten minutes to make sure that the VPs were listed before directors and directors before managers. I asked Larry to enhance the system to automatically sort the distribution lists alphabetically. All the angst and wasted time disappeared when the system automatically sorted the TO, CC, and BCC lists. I set the same standard for written memos in my department.

Sorting lists alphabetically became one of my standard modes of operation. People ascribe undue importance to where an item shows up in a list. For example, they may think that a perceived weakness listed fifth may be less important than one listed first when in fact all are potentially critical. Sorting a list removes this unconscious bias and enables people to focus on the entire list. People know that when I number and don’t sort a list, items are actually in priority order.

Effective strategic planning and implementation has been my single-minded passion for over twenty years. I’ve shared secrets I’ve discovered, developed, and refined in my webinars, books, and published articles. Our website is a rich source of insights and techniques. I invite you to explore the website to learn more.

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