Tzvika Barenholz

@barenholz

A World Without Trust

On the Evil Nature of Outlook’s Meeting Forward Notification

Trust — Conceptual image — success of teamwork. Objects isolated over white — by Vic, from Flickr under CC 2.0 License

Every good Product Manager has a story about their favorite feature, the perfectly honed piece of brilliance in some product somewhere, that she sees as a perfect distillation of everything she stands for. This is *NOT* one of those stories. This one is about my personal polar opposite of a favorite feature; one of my least favorite pieces of software functionality of all ages — the Meeting Forward Notification (MFN) in Microsoft Outlook.

Before we go any further in critiquing the MFN, let’s make sure we know what it is: In organizations that use Outlook and Exchange, when Bob invites Barbara to a meeting, Barbara can then forward that invitation (much like she would forward an email) to Bill. But — and this is the kicker — if she does, then Bob, as the meeting’s organizer, receives an automatic email notifying him that Barbara had forwarded Meeting X to Bill. That, in a nutshell, is the feature.

Microsoft’s support page describes the MFN thus:

Best practices for forwarding meeting requests
When you use Outlook to forward a meeting to someone that was not originally invited to the meeting, Outlook sends a meeting forward notification to the meeting organizer.
When a meeting request is forwarded to a new attendee, the meeting organizer receives a meeting notification and the new attendee is added to the organizer’s meeting. Doing this, however, doesn’t alert the existing attendees of the added attendee.
If for any reason the meeting organizer does not receive the meeting forward notification, the meeting attendees are not added to the organizer’s meeting.

So far so innocuous. Good old Outlook watches out for Bob, telling him an important piece of information about his upcoming meeting with Barbara, which will now include Bill as well.

Who could possibly be against this? Well, me, for one. And the reason is: I don’t want to live in a world without trust. Think about it for a second: why was it necessary to tell Bob about the forwarding? What purpose was it designed to serve? I believe it was put in place because of an assumption (which may well be true) that lots of Bobs out there don’t trust Barbara’s judgement in forwarding the meeting.

I’ve written before about how critical it is to have trust internally. Companies as well as other kinds of organizations cannot succeed for long if people don’t trust each other within them. Colleagues would be forever second-guessing each other, hiding information from each other, undermining each other even. I’m not naive and I know these things happen all the time. But the best organizations should actively think how to maximize trust and minimize suspicion.

With the MFN, when you boil it down, it’s about a decision — Barbara’s decision to forward the meeting to Bill. Outlook is telling us with features — which like proverbial actions, speak louder than words — that Bob doesn’t trust her decision, and therefore must be given a chance to overrule her.

I don’t know what customer request lead to the development of MFN. Some bank or government bureaucracy must have asked for it after some indiscretion by one such Barbara. No matter. MFN should never have been built, and if there is a setting to turn it off, it should be used by everyone, because of two evils that must be stopped:

  1. All the time wasted in aggregate by Bobs the world over, investing their precious mental energy in consuming the fact that their meeting was forwarded
  2. Barbaras having to think twice before forwarding a meeting, not on the actual subject at hand (who needs to be in the meeting to achieve its goal), but on what Bob will think when he gets the MFN

Ultimately Bob and Barbara work in the same place to achieve the same goals. Bob called the meeting to get something done or decided. If Barbara thinks Bill’s contribution is critical to achieving that, then she should just go ahead and add him, and everyone should move on to the next card on their Trello board. Yes, in some rare instances, an awkward situation might occur, for example if Bob has actually intended to raise things related to Bill’s performance. But even in those cases, it would have been better to just be transparent and tell Barbara the real agenda, to prevent the bad forward in the first place; And they are too few to justify the millions and millions of MFNs.

Most importantly, at the end of he day, we just want people to get on with their work. Like Wikipedia’s editors, we should just “Assume Good Faith” and trust our colleagues to take actions that drive everyone forward.

Knowledge workers of the world: Join me in saying no to a world without trust at work. Abolish the MFN!

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