I’ve been on a productivity tear recently, observing what works and doesn’t work in the organizations we visit, and talking to friends and coworkers about what is going on in their companies. I blogged on meetings last week, a constantly cited productivity destroyer, and now I’d like to hone in on its evil cousin, email.

It seems overall that people have resigned themselves to meetings, following around their blackberry calendars like zombies, only thinking if they have a choice of meetings to attend and then making a somewhat random decision based on perceived value, interest, proximity, or other attendees they may need to meet. Yes, meetings are winning and one major consequence is that people have just given up completely on their inboxes.

I’ve come to this conclusion after trying to understand the low response rate I’ve been receiving from emails I sent. At first I thought my emails were ending up in spam, but then I noticed people accepted or declined calendar requests and responded to short emails that they could handle from their blackberry. Any other emails ended up in a black hole. I’ve been observing this behavior across organizations: large and small companies, networking contacts and community or charity organizations.

I expressed my frustration to a friend the other night, a friend who is now a CEO of a mid-sized company and who before that served as a consultant within many different organizational cultures. She hypothesized on the problem and related her experiences and soon asked me a very insightful question… “are you asking them to think?” My immediate reaction was no … and a few seconds later I had the “ah-hah” moment. I realized that people no longer have time to think. They’ll respond to emails to schedule something, they’ll answer a quick question, especially if they can do it while in a meeting where they are avoiding thinking. But a request for input or review on something that really matters to them but perhaps more importantly than urgently: that request is realistically going in the black hole. They may have good intentions, they may have promised me they would respond or specifically asked me to send it to them so they could respond, but nevertheless, they do not.

So how do people handle the fact that people simply don’t respond to emails anymore? They do what I do: they schedule meetings to get anything done. And the nasty death spiral continues. I’m not saying that all work should be done over email; I think people use email way too much to carry on conversations that should be done in person. But I do think it could be a major productivity booster if we used it right. Unfortunately, as response rates drop, meetings dominate, and productivity becomes even more elusive.