The “e” in Email

shooting_the-computer.jpgAlright, I’ve had it with project leaders who think that the whole job can be done from a keyboard! I recently helped one of my client companies hire a project manager for a professional services business. The CEO told me they wanted help because “The last 3 project managers didn’t work out.” Yeah, that’s a sign that somethings cookin’ in the project management kitchen. t seems that the last project manager was there for a year and had NEVER been to visit a customer. Now, mind you, this was a professional services firm, and the people working on the projects were pretty much ALWAYS at the customer site. I innocently asked “How did this person manage the project?” The answer, of course . . . EMAIL! Paper cuts all over my body just prior to a lemon juice bath couldn’t have put me into more intense convulsions. For years I have been protesting that email is NOT a form of communication. It’s a data tranmission tool. OK, sometimes email is pretty handy, but honestly, don’t you think we’ve gone too far? Too many times the “e” in email stands for:

  • Easy – – – as in “the easy way out” of something that deserved a face-to-face, or at least a phone call. Or just plain easy for you, and harder for everyone else.
  • Evasive – – – as in a cowardly alternative to a difficult conversation.
  • Evil – – – as in nastygrams that would never have been spoken.
  • And last, but not least, Efficient, but ineffective.

A project leader with an addiction to email is destined for trouble. Are you addicted? Here’s a quick check up. Test yourself against these behaviors, all of which I have observed to be epidemic in the stress-fest work environments where I do my consulting:

  1. The first thing you do when you walk in the door in the morning is clear out your in basket.
  2. You monitor email all day and stay on top of your in basket.
  3. You continue to read and respond to email while people are in your office talking with you.
  4. You send an email to communicate important news instead of holding a meeting.
  5. You send critical documents that require feedeback from busy people as attachments to email and expect them to actually read them.

If even ONE of these statements describes you, give yourself a good slap across the face, splash water over your stinging skin and get help immediately! Surf the web for support groups, call Email-holics Anonymous, explore your relationship with a higher power, whatever it takes! These are not the characteristics of a highly respected project leader. They are the behaviors of an administrator. Project leaders need to LEAD . . . and you can’t do that from a keyboard.

I’m not going to even try to capture a thorough list of email best practices (Jeff Sandquist did a great job of that), but here are a few tips about some particular burrs under my saddle that I’m just itching to eradicate off the face of the planet:

1. Avoid the “hydra” email – an email covering several different topics, each of which requires something of the receiver. Limit each email to one topic, clearly labeled in the subject line, and put “ACTION REQUESTED” in the subject line if you need a response. Winston Churchill used this technique with paper memos, only he was much more blunt, writing the phrase “ACTION REQUIRED THIS DAY” on those concerning urgent matters.
2. Don’t even THINK about sending anything remotely sensitive or emotional in an email. If you MUST write it, have the good sense to delete it before sending, or send it to yourself. The person who reads your email gets to imagine your tone of voice and interpret your meaning. No matter how carefully you write it, you only control a small % of the meaning that your email will convey. The rest will be supplied by the vivid imagination of the receiver.

3. Never use BCC. NEVER! If you MUST secretly let someone know about some savory messages you sent, copy yourself and then forward a copy to them. For Pete’s sake, if the person receiving the BCC hits “Reply to All” you will be outted for the sneaky bastard that you probably are!  (OK,according to one of my techno-nerd friends, it doesn’t work that way anymore, but I recently tested it with my email account and 3 co-conspirators and it STILL works this way for my email.  Personally, I have not checked out every email program on earth, and I’m still not willing to risk it after being burned back in the last century.)

4. Don’t play Email Ping Pong. After a couple of volleys back and forth, pick up the phone, or better yet, pay a personal visit to the other guy. He probably only sits 5 meters away from you anyhow!

When I’ve raised this topic in group discussions there have been heated debastes and a lively exchange of strong opinions. Let’s hear from you! Give it to me with both barrells. If you don’t feel like registering in order to comment on the blog, you can always email me. jackinbox.gif

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4 thoughts on “The “e” in Email”

  1. Kimberly–you’re right on the mark.

    There is a certain “magic” to face to face. I’ve found that it can get things done faster, in the long run.

    The “solve it all in one email” just doesn’t work, as you point out. If it did, the job could be outsourced overseas!

    I’ve got to put in another plug for having lunch, one on one, with coworkers. I’m going to eat anyhow–so I go eat with someone, talk about things other than work.

  2. I agree with much of what Kimberly says, particularly in relation to the email rules. I also agree that face to face is a better option than ANY asynchronous form including voice mail and email. However, Kimberly and I part ways in our view of the value or usefulness of utilizing email as a tool in project management.

    Let me go back in history to ancient times, let’s say the 1980’s. In this era, project teams were for the most part all in the same building and the customers were usually in the same city or county. Life was simple. While you were at work managing the project, your customers were at work doing their business and your project team was nearby. It was easy to perform MBWA. When something important came up you could convene an “all hands” meeting with only an hours notice. Impromptu meetings with team or customers rarely needed more than a few hours to put together and in many cases you could just “drop in” or after a phone call “drive over”. Life was good.

    However, that is not reality now anymore than are quill pens and the Pony Express. Project teams typically span the globe as do the customers for any project. You have time zone issues, language issues, and cultural issues. You have tighter dead lines, projects are more prone to being scrubbed of buffers and management reserve in the planning phase than ever before leaving less maneuverability than ever before and making timeliness more and more important to success. The world is different.

    So what does this have to do with email? First of all, there is no longer any point in time when you can have synchronous communication (talk or virtual meeting) with the entire team at one time without someone being on the phone late at night or at some ungodly hour of the morning. Add to this that some of your project team are in locations where voice communications outside of the office are sketchy at best, where it’s physically impossible to get to the office off hours due to transportation issues, and in some cases where it’s literally life threatening to attempt going to the office at night due to violence in those areas.

    A second fact of our new world economy, and projects, are language and local culture. When communicating with non native speakers, even when the companies “official” language is English multiplies the probability of misinterpretation. Now add to this hard to understand accents, and the degree of use of use colloquialisms in speech and verbal communications and you realize that verbal communications quickly loose much of their effectiveness. What is misunderstood when being ‘said’ can be accurately communicated when written for two reasons. When writing, people tend to have their brain engaged much more so than when speaking and tend to be more precise in the words they use and the explanations they give. On the receiving side where there are language differences the reader can slow down reading, re-read sentences that they’re not sure of, look up words in dictionaries, and even ask for a coworker to help them translate In verbal, this isn’t done. Also, in written the reader is more likely to hit reply with a question than they are in a meeting where their English language skills are poor.

    The third factor I’d like to bring up is corporate culture. Going back to history, in the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s, corporate culture was face to face meetings or written and mailed text. Anyone remember the “memorandum”, or “Smitty, come in here and take a letter for Acme Enterprises” The people promoting the use of the “telephone” at that time were looked at as if they were from another planet. Do you also remember that from a business culture perspective it was a high crime to skip an organizational level in any communication? My god if a Systems Analyst talked to a director (skipping the manager), it was grounds for dismissal. This is corporate culture.

    The corporate culture has now changed. What I stated in the prior paragraph looks silly now. However, we are now just as silly but in different ways. By definition, communication means the ability to convey an idea or information from one person to another person or group. For this to work, the “sender” and “receiver” must be similarly attuned to the method of communications. We are no longer attuned to smoke signals or hand written letters. I don’t think I even look in my mail slot at work more than once every couple of weeks and haven’t received anything but advertising by paper in over a year. Paper mail is no longer a viable form of communication in any company (except perhaps legal).

    Over the past 10 years, voice mail has also been sidelined. In my company today, we are considering the removal of all desk phones and voice mail due to lack of use. Voice mail is still used on cell phones but has been relegated to requests rather than communication. “Joe, give me a call I need to discuss the schedule with you”. “Can you email me the project status”. Etc.

    I contend that other than very small groups, face to face encounters are also going the way of the “memo” or “letter”.

    When working today one must adapt to whatever corporate culture you are dealt. In this day and age that is very largely email. It just doesn’t make sense to fly against the established norms of the company in something as important as communications. If you’re in an email culture (which most of the corporate world is today), having physical or virtual meetings becomes less and less even possible. People you need are not in similar locations, are not in similar time zones, have conflicting priorities, are working from home, and are not focused on the meeting even when you can get them there due to laptops, Blackberry’s, and cell phones being brought into the meeting with them. I’d much prefer to have someone read my email when they are mentally prepared to give it a reading, than to compete with reading/writing email, the Blackberry, reading material, and countless other activities that steal attention during meetings. Also, with an email message there is no question about what was said as there is in a meeting setting.

    When in Rome, do as the Roman’s do. When in an email culture, use email.

    Now, don’t get me wrong. As a PM I’d much prefer to stand up at the front of a conference room of my team members, or customers and have a dialog. And, when I need to communicate with some people who are physically nearby, or can be pulled in on a conference call I do that. But those opportunities are less and less frequent these days and are becoming less and less effective.

    OK, my shields are up – bring on the rebuttals.

    Dan

  3. I would agree that email is just a tool for project leaders, while I disagree that email is Efficient but ineffective.

    While virtual team gains more popularity, email turns out to be a very effective and cost-saving tool if we can use it promptly. If the first thing I do after I walk into office is checking email, I do not think that I’m an Email-holic. It’s a given for virtual team.

    Given an example: I can not afford to have meeting with my Europe team every morning. I do check my email subjects quickly after I get in office and see if there’s need to call Europe partners immediately. Similarly, I do not want to have meeting with either China or India team every afternoon. If I send out a request, I do not want them ask clarification the day after. I need them check their email quickly after they come to work and find me if they have any questions.
    Of course, there’s always time email is not sufficient. If we see ping-pong effect in email, that’s the time to pick the phone or even plan a trip.

  4. Good, strong position on email. I believe it, yet I can’t seem to give it up — it’s too useful.

    There is one more rule that neither this blog entry (which needs it) or the “10 rules for email” do not address: Run the spell-checker before sending your email!

    I advise people to use email the way we used to use Telegrams in the Old Old Days: it gets immediate attention, but the message must be concise and to the point.

    –John

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