January 29, 2015
I remember the day I got my first email account. I was in college and email had just started. I remember the excitement of those first emails and I remember thinking, “this is going to change everything.” I loved email and I coveted every single one. But little did I know over 20 years later that I would grow to hate email. Oh, it changed everything, but not necessarily for the better.
OK, don’t get me wrong, I am not saying it is time to shut it all down and go back to carrier pigeons and fax machines. Email is an amazing advancement in the way the we can communicate and interact with people all over the world. My issue with email is two fold; first, there is WAY too much email and second, people have begun to abuse email using it incorrectly or inefficiently. Which interesting enough, leads back to that first problem.
One of the biggest problems of email pointed out brilliantly by Tim Ferris, author of 4 Hour Work Week, is that people email expecting a massive back and forth email chain to get something done. It starts with a “Hey, do you have a few minutes today to connect?” and 20 emails later, you get to a time when all parties are free and you can connect. Instead, including more information in the email so people can respond or make a decision. For example, “Hey, do you have time to connect today? I am free between 11am and 3pm eastern time. Would you have 30 minutes during that block for a quick phone call? If not, can you suggest times to days you are free?” This helps eliminate the back and forth of, what time zone? No, I am jammed up today? How much time do you need? Phone or in person? And so on. Now imagine if there are 10 people you need to get together. I have seen very productive people even using technology to let people vote on the best times to meet or see when you can get the most people (rare to get them all) available with google calendars and doodle.com. I use Kona.com which is a Team and Project Collaboration tool that helps me bring teams together to get stuff done. With Kona’s poll feature, I can let people vote, then sent up the meeting.
Another issue I have with email is when people use it to delegate tasks. They email someone with a “hey, can you do this?” and usually not enough details to know what or when the tasks needs completed, which leads to the issue above. But how do you know when the task is completed or the progress? Well you email for a progress update of course! Or you sit back and wait and hope the person you emailed to do the task is organized enough to remember to put the task in some tool that reminds them what and when it needs to be done. That works out every time, doesn’t it? What if you had a way to assign people tasks, with dates, details of what needed to be done, relevant documents needed for the task and then had a way to follow the progress of the task? I know, right! Well, with the emergence of collaboration tools and cloud based task management tools, you can now have collaborative tasks and task lists instead of emailing people and hoping for the best.
One of the most amazing features of email when it first came out was the ability to email attachments. Talk about a game changer. My days of swearing at a fax machine or mailing things to people were over. Now in the blink of an eye I can transport documents, presentations, pictures or anything to anyone. But as this became the standard for getting documents to people, the pure volume of it has become way too much. Now we send a huge presentation deck to 25 people seeking feedback and edits. Someone makes a change and emails it back to all 25. But someone else makes a change as well and emails that to everyone. Then we can’t figure out what is the right version and someone is banging their head against their keyboard because they have to play detective and figure what changed in 10 different decks and merge it all together as one. Email was never designed for this. But just as innovation brought us email, innovation has brought us better document collaboration tools that minimize the emailing of everything and make it easier and faster for people to review, edit and approve documents together. Save the emailing of documents for pics of the kids to grandma.
The final issue I want to address is what I call the status update email. This is the email communication that is sent to half the company in the form of a small novel just to make sure anyone and everyone who has been involved in this project knows what is going on. First, for the 80% of us that do most of the reading of email on a mobile device, we see this and say we will look at it later. Guess what … we don’t. The other issue with this email that can rival a George R.R Martin novel is that you can’t figure out what, if anything, is pertinent to you or what you need to do with this. So you file it away like a digital hoarder, never to look at it again. But what happens when new people join the project team? How do they get up to speed on this stuff when all of the information is in emails they never received? Again, back to changes in technology where collaboration tools allow the information to be stored with the project so when others come along or need to find it, it is there and not locked in someone’s sent email folder. Bonus tip: many of these tools allow you to call out specific people or groups that the information is relevant to.
I love email and the way it has changed the way we can communicate and I love how that single innovation changed the world. But just because it was the way to do it in 2000 does not mean that the same types of innovations are not happening now to make it even easier for teams to communicate and collaborate.