Email 101

While talking with my wife the other day, I happened to mention Atos to her. If you don’t remember Atos, they’re the company that banned email at the tail end of 2011. I’m not sure how well that has gone, but I haven’t heard that they’ve reversed the decision – in fact they are still blogging about it as of last October. I thought the idea of banning email was illogical then, and I still believe it is.

I was thinking about Atos as a side effect of my last blog post. You see, email has gotten this bad rap. We hear, “email is cumbersome”, “email is a time waster”, or “email is inefficient”.

No, it isn’t. Email is remarkably efficient, if you use it right. It’s also remarkably useful, in ways no other communication medium is. I believe that email was crucial to my survival within Microsoft and helped me defuse issues rapidly in a way no other medium could either.

I’ve used Twitter for almost 5 years, and I think one of the most valuable skills I have learned as a result is the same focus on accuracy and brevity that I mentioned in my last post.

To that point, I believe that if email is broken in your organization, it isn’t email that’s broken. It’s more likely how your organization is using email that’s broken.

Imagine if someone asked you to have a 10 minute meeting with them, but gave you little foundation as to why you were being invited? If they didn’t tell you what their expectations of you were, and that they had action items for you? Would you go? If you said yes, I believe you need to rethink the mental decision tree you use for meetings.

Meetings can be incredibly wasteful if there is no order to them, and no clear ownership. It is the meeting organizer’s obligation to ensure that:

  1. A meeting is only held if it must be held to reach an outcome. If you don’t really need a meeting, don’t have one!
  2. The subject matter of the meeting is clearly understood.
  3. All attendees, and only those attendees that need to be there to come to closure on the outcome are invited.
  4. A clear agenda to the meeting is included in the invite.
  5. An appropriate, but not undue amount of time is allocated to the meeting.
  6. The meeting is not scheduled on too short, or too long, of an advance notice.
  7. The decisions to be closed upon are clearly understood ahead of, and closed during, the meeting.
  8. All attendees have materials they need before the meeting and understand action items they may walk away with.
  9. The meeting begins on time, stays on agenda and on topic, and ends on time.
  10. The specified outcomes are agreed to, the matter is closed, and the outcome is clearly communicated to everyone invited.
  11. All attendees with action items understand those action items and their due date.

If you have a meeting and there is no decision to be made, I have to ask you – why are you having a meeting? Meetings are incredibly expensive in terms of resources and time, and can be wasteful, if not borderline toxic to an organization.  You’re disrupting every single participant in that room for as long as the meeting runs (plus as long as it takes for them to get there and back to their real work). A few employees meeting weekly? Wasting thousands of dollars per month. I’d argue companies should kill meetings before they kill email. I personally believe that status meetings are a sign of an organization that is in pain, an organization that is having broader communication issues and may be in trouble.

So why did I just write about meetings when I’m talking about email? Because they reflect the same problem. Email is a meeting which is a few minutes long (but like bad meetings, bad email threads can run on far longer than they should). Every rule above has similar applicability to email. Observe the following. The email sender has the responsibility to ensure that:

  1. An email should only be sent if it must be in order to reach an outcome. If you don’t really need to send an email, don’t send  one!
  2. The subject of the email is clearly stated.
  3. All recipients, and only those recipients that need to be there to come to closure on the thread are included.
  4. A clear description of the issue to be decided upon, and all known potential conclusions are included in the email.
  5. The email is no longer than it needs to be to state the issue, potential outcomes, possible action items, and expectations for closure date.
  6. The email is not left open-ended in terms of objective or timeframe to reach the conclusion and assign any action items. (No response = no opinion on outcome.)
  7. The decisions to be closed upon are clearly described in, and closed during, the email thread.
  8. All recipients have either links to, or attachments of, background materials they may need to issue their opinion and understand action items they may walk away with.
  9. The email thread has the information recipients need to close on a decision, stays on topic, and ends on time.
  10. The specified outcome are agreed to, the matter is closed, and the outcome is clearly communicated to everyone on the original email thread.
  11. All recipients with action items understand those action items and their due date.

There is a quote attributed to many, but often to Mark Twain, which says, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” As I’ve said before, it is important that communication be well thought out, organized, efficient, likely revised or considered several times, and sent. Make messages and action items clear, or you only have yourself to blame when a thread goes off the rails. Unclear message or potential outcomes? Don’t send it, at least not yet.

In many ways, it is a pain that Twitter has a limit of 140 characters, and brutally constrains the length of messages. But it results in a quick, fast dialog as a result. In many more ways, it’s a shame that email is such an open-ended device, that it enables users to create tomes instead of emails, and that users are given so little training to use email efficiently (and inadequately chastised when threads kill productivity). Today, Outlook has an “Ignore thread” button. I believe such a feature shouldn’t be there, as it is a sign of malignant communication.

Think before you send email. Don’t be afraid to do it – but be ruthless in your efficiency with it. Pretend that every email you send carelessly wastes money and time. Because it does!

2 comments

  1. […] took a more responsible ‘what is in it for them?’ perspective on communication: from getwired, and Fast […]

  2. […] tips” or teaching others how you expect to engage.  It started out with an excellent email 101 post from Wes Miller (@getwired) which looks at something many organisations suffer with – […]