Insights April 2010

The "should I meet this person" challenge

Neil Seeman

Email management case study: "You guys should meet; you have a lot in common." The email sails into your inbox, usually with a terse subject line: 'intro'.
The introducer is a big shot. You're affable and like to meet potential business partners or future hires, but you're short on time. You like to be polite and strategic - you never know which 'intro' will lead to a major opportunity, or to a friendship.
What is the Pareto-optimal move to make everyone on the email thread happy?
I get these unsolicited 'intro' emails frequently; receiving them is therefore wholly unrelated to the recipient's influence. It's an increasing management challenge for everyone with an email account. For the sender, the cost of the 'intro' email is eight seconds; for the two people copied on the email, it means at least the time spent composing a cordial and sometimes awkward email exchange, and, possibly, a telephone call, Skype chat, coffee or longer face-to-face.
There is no app to deal with this escalating Internet-era time management challenge. Professional networking sites such as Linkedin are supposed to make the science of deciding whom you should meet easier, but in actuality they dramatically increase the number of 'intro' emails you receive.
I find busy people deal with 'intro' emails in one of three ways. Some punt them off to an assistant; many don't respond; others respond with a note of gratitude that may or may not evolve into something more. Many make it a policy not to respond; they feel the useless-to-productive meeting ratio springing from email 'intros' is just too costly. Others prefer to triage the meeting; they thank the introducer, and, in a separate exchange with the co-recipient, sniff out whether or not a meeting is worthwhile.
The best approach is to recognize that converting the 'intro' email into a beautiful partnership is a random event. But the introducer has a kind of 'trust score'. There are three or four people whose 'intro' emails are pure gold. They don't match me to people with brilliance or pedigree or presumed ideology; they match me to people whom they think I'll really like and who are trying to solve the same puzzle I am (in my case, using the Web to figure out what patients and caregivers around the world want and need). The introducer is acting like an Internet dating service, and she should win ongoing loyalty and business if her service serves the purposes of e-harmony.
What many people don't recognize is that we all have a reputational score for email etiquette. There is no relationship between the status or position of someone in an organization and their score. Once I was chatting with a colleague who was miffed that a 30-something superstar CEO didn't respond to his emails; a third person chimed in: "Everyone knows he's a jerk on email but a prince in person."
I admit to a bit of email triage; I also try to apologize when "I let one go." Some of my greatest friends have emerged from those one-line 'intro' emails I never expected. Life is short, and innovation, a winding path: like the invention of email for common use.

About the Author(s)

Neil Seeman is Director and Primary Investigator of the Health Strategy Innovation Cell at Massey College in the University of Toronto.


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