Break through the e-mail storm to streamline communications

In the modern business world, mountains of data threaten to overwhelm us. But you don't have to contribute. Apply simple rules to your communications to reduce unnecessary e-mail and streamline your workflow.

E-mail is one of the greatest innovations in computing. We've come up with a lot of neat gadgets and fun toys, but nothing else reduces the time to execute communication so drastically. But this reduction in the time required to create communication also reduces the amount of control we have over the information we share. I once participated in a rather egregious example of this on a network project.

This project occurred fairly early in my career. I was just out of school, working as a general technician and carryall for a small IT shop. We worked hard, played hard, and generally did our best to help our customers. During my first network deployment project, the project manager called me onto the carpet one day. It seems that, although I worked long hours, he had no idea what I was doing or why.

At that point, I became extremely confused. I dropped him upwards of 30 e-mails a day, about everything from the person with whom I was having lunch to what decisions I needed to make about the placement of new workstations. I thought that, somehow, among all of that, he could find what he needed. He pointed out to me that he monitored the status of 10 technicians and just maybe didn't have the time to read 300+ e-mails a day. Being young, I went off in a huff.

Going through life
It was only later, as I started to move up in the management chain and explore leadership opportunities, that my poor manager's plight became clear to me. It was not just the volume of messages—it was the inane content. I read e-mails identical to the ones I had written myself and wondered, "what, exactly, is this all about?"

I also learned that we were not alone. In fact, my 500 e-mails from a 30-person team paled in comparison to the insanity some of my cohorts suffered under. One managed a 15-person team and received 1000+ e-mails daily. Another (the all-time record holder in my personal circle) managed 1500+ daily from a six-person team. To this day, I have no idea how the team did any work while generating that much e-mail or how he got any work done trying to sort through it.

Things finally came to a head for me after one particularly disastrous team meeting. After some raised voices, one of my hotshot young network engineers left in a huff after I asked him what, exactly, he was doing during the day. He responded that his 100+ e-mails every day should be sufficient to give me some insight. I decided it was finally time to try to understand the root of the issue.

Fast, cheap, and easy
E-mail is a particularly seductive medium. Just type a few words, hit the Send button, and away it goes—data contained in black letters on white screens, transmitted at the speed of light to as many targets as you desire. Everyone can know everything all the time!

Human beings don't actually work that way, though. Although our tools allow us to transmit data quickly, our fundamental ability to process data into information has not changed. It still takes time to correlate data, apply questions to it, and generate data meaningful to a specific situation. Usually in the e-mail-connected world, this process gets interrupted by yet another batch of electronic data holders, each one clamoring for attention. We keep trying to process and respond faster and faster, missing the details and the linkages that we really need.

We generate this chatter for a wide variety of reasons, including:
  1. E-mail is a record of our activities. We often send e-mail to a wide number of targets to let them know that we are, in fact, working on something. Especially in today's market with outsourcing and payrolls being slashed, this kind of activity seems very important.
  2. E-mail creates the illusion of involvement. By sending e-mail to everyone who might possibly have an interest in our activities, we create the sense that the target is involved.
  3. E-mail takes the burden off of us. Once we've e-mailed someone, we are "waiting for responses" to critical decisions. This allows us to shift our focus to all of the other things that we need to do.

Somewhere in the storm of e-mails is good, solid data that we can turn into actionable information. We just have to find out how to slow down the stream a bit and get the data out.

Targeted words, targeted results
Even knowing the above, I realized that I still generated far too much chatter e-mail, let alone the amount I received. So I stepped back further and asked the fundamental questions of communications: Why am I sending this specific message to this individual? Why am I selecting e-mail over any other medium (including leaving my desk, walking 30 feet, and talking face-to-face)?

The majority of my self-generated e-mail traffic, and the e-mail that I received, was of an "informational" nature. No one wanted me to act on the data I received; they just sent it to me to avoid my feeling "out of the loop." But the data did not fundamentally help me with any decisions I faced, either immediately or in the foreseeable future. I bombarded people with similarly useless junk, usually bcc or cc on messages sent to people who might be able to act on the data.

A subset of my message traffic actually contained decision-making activities (fitting in with the third category above). However, e-mail is a rather poor medium for the kinds of quick decisions I needed to have made. E-mail is very serial in its communication style; you cover one point or issue at a time. The reader must go through the message, consider his points, ask more questions, and pass it back. Oral communications work better for such decisions because they have a much more interactive format. In oral communication, ideas flow freely and you can move quickly from questions to answers. If recording is very important to the organization, a follow-up or "agreement" message fills that need.

In recognition of these two points, I stopped sending blanket e-mails. Although it slowed down my "flow," I started to craft each message individually, focusing on providing actionable information. I also stopped trying to use e-mail for rapid decision-making; if I needed a call on something from an upper manager, I took the time to speak with him or her directly.

Going forward
Organizational chatter seems to be a permanent feature of the modern business world. Mountains of data overwhelm us, and messages pile up in our inboxes. Nothing can change that.

However, we don't have to contribute. By applying basic rules to communications, we can avoid adding to the noise. We may also get lucky; sometimes the people around us notice how quickly and easily we communicate and start to emulate our activities.

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