ing support system. The team leader
directs the conversation to create a
common goal, agree on outcomes,
divide the work into tasks and milestones, and assign subtasks and milestones to team members. The members then go to their own locations
and time zones to carry out their parts
of the plan using their personal time
Unfortunately, as suggested in Figure 2, the “personal” tasks are interdependent. Soon team members discover cases or encounter unexpected
circumstances that were not discussed
in the plan. Unpredictability is inevitable in our constantly evolving and
changing environments. Team members turn to their email, phones, and
other media for follow up, get further
clarifications, develop action plans
for the new circumstances, respond to
unforeseen opportunities and threats,
and the like. Email is by far the most
common medium because, with teammates on the move in different time
zones and sometimes in different cultures, it is not easy to resolve these issues on the phone. The mixture gets
even more complicated when participants fall into misunderstandings and
then miss deadlines or otherwise mis-coordinate. They generate additional
email messages to overcome misunderstandings and resolve mis-coor-dinated actions. These coordination
issues can easily produce hundreds
of email messages. Even simple things
like finding a time for a phone conference to resolve issues can take dozens
of email messages. This is how unseen
coordination generates an information
fog that interferes with productivity.
By seeing coordination as a form of
conversation management and teaching ourselves to see the loops that are
moving toward completion, we can
maintain a clear picture of the coordination network and dispel the fog.
The conclusion is that, for most of
us, most of our time management is
really not “personal.” Our commitments always involve others in our
networks of coordination. To master
your time, therefore, you need to master your ability to make requests and
offers (which start loops), your ability
to negotiate and agree on the promised results, and your ability to deliver
your results by the time you promised.
The tools that support you must at the
very least track all the loops you are involved in and tell you how far toward
completion each one is.
What software exists to help us see and
track the coordination loops we create
in our coordination networks?
The first such tool was The Coordinator, produced by Action Technologies in the mid-1980s.
4 It was a mail
client that resided on laptop PCs and
exchanged messages through a dial-in server. The Coordinator made the
individual loops, which it called “
conversations for action,” visible to the
persons engaged in them. The interface was different from ordinary email
systems. For example, you would initiate a loop by selecting “request” from
a menu, filling in a description of the
desired outcome and due date, and
sending it to the person you wanted as
the performer. The recipient would see
your request in a portion of the inbox
labeled “incoming requests.” With a
menu, the recipient would select one
of the four allowable responses (
accept, decline, counteroffer, or defer).
Other menus and mailbox segments
covered the remaining parts of unfinished loops. Local databases on both
ends tracked all open loops and their
states. It was easy to generate to-do
lists (promises you committed to),
tickler lists (undelivered promises
made to you), email chains of loops,
and calendar entries from the database. When you dialed in to The Coordinator server, the databases automatically synchronized.
The people who used The Coordinator reported significant productivity gains: they could manage two to 10
times more tasks and projects than before. The email messages themselves
also became shorter because they were
all linked to their parent loops; with a
single click, for example, you could see
what request an email message that
said “I accept” was accepting.
A small group of critics thought The
Coordinator was a form of “surveil-
lance software” that could be abused
by unscrupulous managers who might
watch the fine details of people’s inter-
actions and penalize them for small
infractions. The lesson was that people
in organizations where employees do
not trust management might not wel-
come a good coordination tool.
Many of us get overwhelmed by an
information fog of email messages,
which interferes with our ability to
get productive work done and puts us
into unproductive moods such as overwhelm and anger over mis-coordinat-ed actions. One coordination task can
require dozens of email messages. If
all we can see is the email messages, it
quickly becomes a fog. If we could see
the coordination task itself, we have
much less to track and we can let the
computer systems manage the email
When this is done, we become more
productive and enjoy reputations of
greater trust. What a great augmentation it can be to your personal productivity system to learn the language of
coordination, become an observer of
coordination acts and state, and have
the tools to automatically manage the
1. Denning, P. accomplishment. Commun. ACM 46, 7
(July 2003), 19–23; Doi: 10.1145/792704.792722.
2. Denning, P. Managing time. Commun. ACM 54, 3 (Mar.
2011); Doi: 10.1145/1897852.1897865.
3. Denning, P. and Dunham, r. The Innovator’s Way. Mit
Press, Cambridge, Ma, 2010.
4. Winograd, t. and Flores, F. Understanding Computers
and Cognition. addison-Wesley, reading, Ma, 1987.
Peter J. Denning ( email@example.com) is Distinguished
Professor of Computer science and Director of the
Cebrowski institute for information innovation at the
naval Postgraduate school in Monterey, Ca, and is a past
president of aCM.
Ritu Raj ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is the founder and president
of orchestratorMail, was a Partner at accenture, and
started two successful companies Wag hotels, and
avasta, which was acquired by navisite.
Copyright held by author.