PM Notebook
Exploring the Root Causes of our Email Overload
Bill Hoberecht - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

There is just too much email flying around.  Important messages are missed, junk email consumes your precious time, and the result is an enormous inefficiency in teamwork and collaboration. This article is first in a series about electronic communication in project environments in the workplace, and focuses on the problems with email overload that plague all of us.  Why are you sending and receiving so many emails?  It may be inherent in the structure of your project or the culture of your company – once you understand the shortcomings or your project’s communication methods, you can start introducing improvements that reduce email traffic yet increase the effectiveness of your electronic communications.

Article Summary

Have only 60 seconds to read this article?  Here are the highlights:

  • It is not good enough to simply get more efficient at processing received email and applying etiquette rules when sending email.  Taming your email problem has four elements:
    1. (This article) Determine and address the root causes of all that email your project sends.
    2. (Second article) Develop alternate electronic communication channels. (Wiki, MS-SharePoint).
    3. (Third Article) Get better at handling your inbox.
    4. (Fourth Article) Get better at sending email (and knowing when not to send email).
  • Determine and address the root causes of all that email your project sends.
    • Identify ways to eliminate some types of email messages. 
    • Analyze your email to discover aspects of the organizational culture or project structure that causes this email to be sent to you and then identify possible changes in project operation that will eliminate some email messages, rendering them unnecessary.
  • Here are some root causes I’ve identified through an analysis of my inbox at various times in recent years:
    • Publishing persistent information via email.  Email is the wrong mechanism for publication of project information.
    • Not recognizing that “demands” exceed “capacity.”  Many team members don’t recognize that the effort to adequately handle their incoming email flow is probably significantly greater than their capacity.
    • No effective system for organizing incoming email.  Often, it is only through fortuitous recollection or a haphazard review of the inbox that an important email is re-discovered and handled properly.
    • Engaging in project discussions via email.  A project discussion or chat board is much better suited for this aspect of project communication.
    • Attempting to resolve a complex topic via email.   Busy people who are too occupied to give adequate attention to a complicated topic, yet who insist on using email as the forum for discussion, typically via terse, sometimes cryptic emails that are wholly inadequate for the topic. 

 

The Blessing and Curse of Email

Email is an extremely powerful mechanism for team communications – it allows asynchronous communication, can enable rapid broad-based information dissemination, is universally used, and can allow just about any possible form of electronic information to be communicated.

Unfortunately, there is no doubt that too much electronic information is clogging our email inbox.   Some email messages are too detailed or lengthy, some are not needed, and the rest are important.  With such high volumes of email floating around our time consumed in reading email can be excessive, and even then the chances of missing an important email are rather high.

 

For most project teams email has become a noisy, unreliable and overloaded channel.  We cannot assume that our transmitted emails are actually read and processed by the intended recipients; this is one tremendous downfall for using email as a primary communications channel.  Additionally, and significantly, email attachments are a burden to manage efficiently.

  

Unfortunate Trends in Email Use

When I first started using email, it was a tremendous boost to productivity – communicating across an organization suddenly required little effort and generally worked well.  As a supplement to personal interactions with team members, it provided a quick way to exchange key information.  With relatively few messages sent each day, it was safe to assume that each email would get the attention that it deserved.

 As email volumes starting growing, I noticed four issues coming to the surface:

  1. Email increasingly became a substitute for taking with others. 
  2. Dysfunctional uses of email appeared on the scene (e.g., “flames” with large distribution lists, “cover-yourself” emails with large CC: lists).
  3. Occasionally an important email would be overlooked.
  4. Team members were spending much more time processing email.  For many, a feeling of satisfaction came from ‘clearing the inbox’ – for some this was a daily goal, displacing the much more meaningful goal of making progress on a project.

Enter the mobile email technologies (e.g., Blackberry) and continuous access to email.  Couple that with an increasing use of email, and we are in a situation where each of the four issues has grown to become a legitimate problem. 

  1. Email is inappropriately used for handling complex issues that are best handled in discussions with others. 
  2. Dysfunctional uses of email are common.
  3. Important email is overlooked frequently.
  4. Team members spend too time processing email and are constantly distracted by incoming email messages.  ‘Clearing the inbox’ is rare, and is new source of stress.  For some, constantly checking for newly arrived messages and reading email has become akin to an addiction (paradoxically, handling or responding to email doesn’t always receive that same level of attention).

   

The Path to Slaying the Email Dragon

Now email volumes are just too high.  The answer isn’t to abandon email nor is it to spend even more time on email.  Also, it is not as simple as following rules of email etiquette.

Adopt an email strategy that will work for you and your organization.  This may require a bit of work and a dose of discipline.  Here’s a path that can work:

  1. Determine and address the root causes of all that email your project sends.  Ask “Why am I sending and receiving so many email messages?”  You may discover that the team structure, lack of empowerment (along with an absence of delegated responsibilities), and ineffective use of communications channels are the root causes of your email overload.  We’ll cover this in the remainder of this article.
  2. Develop alternate channels for electronic communication. For persistent information, avoid email entirely.  Use a project or organizational Wiki (or similar technology e.g, MS-SharePoint).  Blogs and project discussion boards can be much more effective than email.  More on this topic is in the second article in this series.
  3. Get better at handling your inbox.  A ‘Getting Things Done’ approach can do it, and is the conclusion of the third article.
  4. Get better at sending email (and knowing when not to send email).  The fourth article in this series addresses this topic.

  

Common Situations - Ineffective Email Usage

Widespread poor use of email causes problems in collaboration between the members of a project team.  Misplaced, unread, or ignored emails introduce a variety of inefficiencies to the operation of a project team – it just plain wastes time.  See if you can recognize any of these time-wasting situations in your own project experience:

  • “I sent that, didn’t you see it?”  You are in a discussion and the other person says “Don’t you remember, I sent that to you in an email last week?”  Of course, you don’t remember seeing that email because it was lost in an avalanche of emails.  Unfortunately for you, that means that you are a bit behind in the flow of relevant information.
  • Too busy to act on an email.  Yes, you saw the email asking you to take on some new task.  Unfortunately this new task was easily forgotten amongst the new wave of emails arriving in your inbox.  That work item is still in your email, but it is in the category labeled ‘emails received two weeks or more ago.’
  • Can’t receive or send - email box is full.  Someone is attempting to send something to you but cannot because your inbox is full.   Or you are trying to send an urgent email, but your system will not allow this until you take the time to clean up your inbox (some corporate email systems prevent you from sending email if your inbox size exceeds a set limit).
  • “Wait while I look for that email.”  You are on a conference call and someone is telling you to find a specific email that is needed for the current discussion.  You frantically search through your many special-purpose folders seeking to find that email while everyone else on the conference call waits for you.
  • Arguments Carried Out Via Email.  As you and several others sit back and watch, two parties fire email messages back and forth about some topic of disagreement.  Accusations, misrepresentation of facts about the situation and personal attacks are now part of the company’s official email records. 
  • Missing or Useless Subject Line.  How many “RE: “ messages have you seen?  No topic or some non-descriptive topic.  The lack of clear subject information makes it all the more difficult for the recipient to properly handle your message.

 

Identifying the Root Cause of High Email Volumes

Most suggestions on reducing email overload will offer techniques that address the symptoms of the email problems you are experiencing – indeed, those methods can be helpful.  However, increasing your efficiency in handling email, while practical and useful, will not scale as volumes of email continue to increase.   Techniques that focus solely on efficient email practices are all aimed at increasing your proficiency in using a communications system that is inherently flawed.  Certainly many of the emails that you receive are necessary and important, but if you are overloaded with incoming email then there is a deeper problem somewhere. 

Your starting point is to identify ways to eliminate some types of email messages.  The first question to be answered for each incoming email is not “How to I process this email more efficiently.”  Rather, the first question is “Why am I receiving this email?” That is, analyze your email to discover aspects of the organizational culture or project structure that causes this email to be sent to you and then identify possible changes in project operation that will eliminate some types of email messages, rendering them unnecessary.

Let me illustrate this point with three examples of from analyzing my inbox:

  1. Just joined the organization.  When I take on responsibility for a new project or join a new organization, I seek to get into the flow of email – that immersion accelerates my ‘coming up to speed.’  For several weeks, I welcome this abundance of email; it is valuable to me.  However this value diminishes over time as I get involved in other communication paths – at this point I take action to remove myself from email threads and discussions.
  2. Too many requests for review or approval.   As an organizational leader, I find that my inbox is filled with requests to review a document, and my time is consumed in spotting basic problems that require re-work and a subsequent review.  This reduces my overall work capacity.  My remedy is to introduce a peer review mechanism that results in a high quality work product; in an accompanying change, most project documents are identified as not requiring my approval since the outcome of the peer review is a declaration of suitability.
  3. Mailbox cluttered with status reports.  At times I have had over thirty project status reports landing in my inbox each week, all with the expectation that I will read, understand and respond as needed.  There are many problems with this approach (mentioned in the second article of this series).  I’ve changed this situation by having my project managers organize project information, including status reports, on project collaboration web sites (e.g., MS-SharePoint or Wiki sites).  This has removed routine status reports from my inbox while still preserving the ability for me to view project status information.

 

Actual Root Causes (based on my inbox)

Based on an analysis of your project’s email behavior, you should target identifying at least two or three significant root causes that can be mitigated (or even fully addressed).  Here are some root causes I’ve identified through an analysis of my inbox at various times in recent years:

  • Publishing persistent information via email.  Sending documents to groups of people with the expectation that those people will retain the document and organize their own private repository of related documents.  This root cause requires far too many people to take on ‘documentation clerk’ responsibilities.  Email is the wrong mechanism for publication of project information. (Much more on this topic is in the second article of this series).
  • Not recognizing that “demands” exceed “capacity.”  Individuals on a team are not cognizant of the amount of work they have taken on; in accepting new work, even indirectly via email conversations, they have created an expectation of completing that work.  This becomes a source of disappointment or frustration to others (when tasks are not completed) and stress (as the backlog of work never seems to diminish).  For many team members, the effort to adequately handle their incoming email flow is probably significantly greater than their capacity.
  • No effective system for organizing incoming email.  Team members attempt various methods (see more in the third article of this series) to initially process email when it is first read.  However, there is little discipline of systematically reviewing emails that still require a response or action.  More often than not, it is only through fortuitous recollection or a haphazard review of the inbox that an important email is re-discovered and handled properly.
  • Engaging in project discussions via email.  Threads of discussion, involving multiple team members, conducted via email.  Asynchronous ‘dialogue’ can be instrumental in making progress on a project.  However using email for this purpose introduces two fundamental problems: 1) while a thread may have a single root, it will typically transform into multiple, parallel discussion threads that cannot be managed well via email; 2) the dialogues are not easily correlated as they are intermixed with other email traffic.  A project discussion or chat board is much better suited for this aspect of project communication.
  • Attempting to resolve a complex topic via email.  This might be a variant of the prior cause, “Engaging in project discussions via email,” and could be described as busy people who are too occupied to give adequate attention to a complicated topic, yet who insist on using email as the forum for discussion.  Participation in the email discussion is often via terse, sometimes cryptic emails that are wholly inadequate for the topic.  Important or complex issues are more effectively handled through focused conversation where the nuances of various opinions can be better communicated and understood.

 

What’s Next?

If you are a project manager or another leader in an organization that is suffering from email overload, now is a good time to start digging into the situation.  Look for the source of the problem.  Start your journey by analyzing the email traffic that is flowing within the project team, with an eye towards identifying the root causes for all of that email.  Some of those root causes can be mitigated or even fully eliminated; identify those causes that, if addressed, will help the project team.  Prioritize the improvement actions to maximize impact, and then implement a few of the most impacting changes.