Thursday, January 8, 2009

Living in Outlook: Effectively Tracking Conversations with Flags


Living in Outlook: Effectively Tracking Conversations with Flags

The Living in Outlook series is about sharing tips and workflows around real-world scenarios. We’ll start the conversation with a topic – you can add to it by posting your tips and workflows in the comments!

After having sent apparently one too many “nag mails” about a seemingly forgotten work item, a colleague of mine asked me what my secret was for tracking open issues.  I will now attempt to answer his question while publicly professing my love for the Outlook feature that made it all possible: “tracked conversations”. 

One of the things that I love about working on Outlook is that I’m helping to build a tool that is an integral part of my own workflow. Specifically, there are relatively few issues that I deal with that aren’t at some point and in some way discussed over e-mail.  This means that closely integrating my issue tracking with my e-mail workflow is critical. For this I use e-mail flagging, which allows me to pick a target completion date for a given issue, and the Task List in my To-Do Bar, which tells me how well I’m keeping up with those completion dates.  The feature that brings it all together for me, though, is “tracked conversations”.

Three Steps to “Never Dropping the Ball” using Tracked Conversations

Step 1:

Flag E-mail for Follow-Up with an Appropriate Due Date

You can flag e-mail that you’re about to send, flag e-mail that you’ve received, you can even “cheat” by either sending yourself a piece of mail or creating a special-purpose task for those issues that didn’t originate over e-mail. If an e-mail relates to a particularly important issue, consider adding a custom flag with descriptive text and/or a reminder.

Step 2:

Update Flags Upon Receiving New Messages in “Tracked Conversations”

When I receive a new message that is in the same conversation as a message that I previously flagged I see an InfoBar message that tells me that the new message is an update to a “tracked conversation”:

Infobar - Tracked Conversation

By clicking on the InfoBar I am presented with these two options:

Infobar - Context Menu

The “Find related messages” option will bring up a new window that displays all of the other messages that were part of the same conversation. However, in most cases, all I really care about is the message that I originally flagged, which I can open immediately by choosing “Open Original Flagged Message”.

For me, updating the flag might mean:

- Clearing the flag: The issue is now resolved!

- Updating the due time: The new message provided a more accurate ETA.

- “Moving” the flag to the current message: The new message provided more context and I’d like to refer back to the new message instead of the original when I deal with this issue in the future.

Step 3:

Once a Day Take Some Action on Each Overdue Flag in My To-Do Bar

For me, this usually means one of the following:

- Sending out a reminder mail or asking for status

- Updating the due time to a later date

- Taking care of the task myself!

My Most Common Flagging Workflows

Here are some of my more common workflows that involve message flagging and tracked conversations.  Hopefully you’ll find something below that maps well to the types of issues you have a tendency to forget (and feel free to add more in your comments).

· Delegating Issues - Melissa MacBeth gave a nice high-level overview of one of the primary “on-ramps” for tracked conversations in this post about a feature we call “Send-and-Track” on her Tasks and Time Management in Outlook blog.  The idea is simple: when I ask someone to do something important over e-mail, I flag the draft message for myself so that I remember to follow up after the message has been sent and ensure that the action I requested was completed.  The recipient of the message never knows that I have it flagged (at least they didn’t until they read this blog post…).

· Making a Commitment – Since I believe in the Golden Rule, I use “Send-and-Track” not just when I ask others to do something but also when I commit to getting something done.  In other words, if I send you a message that says “I’ll get to this next week”, chances are that I flagged that message for “Next Week” before hitting send (whether I actually get to it before the end of next week is a different issue…). 

· Ensuring Follow-up – I monitor a lot of e-mail aliases that receive support questions about Outlook.  When it comes to support mail, I don’t really care who answers the question (so delegation doesn’t make sense), nor do I necessarily want to be the one who answers every question (so making a commitment doesn’t make sense), but I do want to make sure that someone does something about any important issue that I see.  Therefore, I flag all “interesting” support questions with a due date of “Today” and only clear those flags if/when someone takes ownership of the issue and/or resolves it.  At the end of the day, if no ownership/resolution has occurred, I will decide how to best proceed with each issue.

Well, that’s the basic idea.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and clear the flagged piece of e-mail that I sent to my colleague in which I committed to explaining how I track issues…

Alon Brown
Outlook Development Engineer

Microsoft Office Outlook Team Blog : Living in Outlook: Effectively Tracking Conversations with Flags

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