I have been managing IT projects for almost 20 years. I learned from the very start that the fastest way to results was to build a team with strong interpersonal relations and solve problems by talking to people or bringing people together. I learned that if I had a problem to solve or a task to handle I should go to peoples desk rather than call them on the phone – and I should call them on the phone (or later Skype) rather than sending them a mail.
What I have seen however – especially over the last 3-5 years – is that the communication channel priority has been turned completely upside down. Email has more or less de facto become the first-choice communication channel. If an email is not answered within a reasonable time – which is often considered to be 24 hours (!) – then the email is either resent with escalated cc’s or a Skype contact is attempted. Only if the matter is of significant complexity or urgency a simple phone call is considered. Face to face communication is more or less reserved for formal meetings.
What in the world happened?
Well, most would argue that technology just happened. And some might even challenge why this is a bad thing. Mail is available 24/7, quick to use, carries documentation well, can easily be shared amongst a group of people and keeps the audit trail of the case.
So what is wrong with that?
Well, first of all mail is slowing down the process of problem solving and decision making. A reply to an e-mail is always at the convenience of the recipient and if there is no alignment on availability and urgency each exchange can take up to the said 24 hours. Calendar time is passing by while mails are exchanged back and forth – sometimes to solve or settle simple matters that could be handled in minutes on a phone call. I have seen people sitting literally ten meters from each other mailing back and forth to complete a simple task like setting up a meeting time.
Secondly, mail is not a suitable media for more complex issues. I have seen endless mail trails trying to explain and solve complex issues without ever getting close to a solution. The mail trail grows – and often the number of people in cc does as well – while there is no - or little - value added to solving the issue. Sometimes it even adds to further unclarity and uncertainty with partial input from a range of people. Put the same people in a room with a whiteboard and often a fraction of the people will solve the issue in a fraction of the time.
Thirdly, mail does not support interpersonal relations. In my experience the key to succeeding with complex IT projects is bringing the right people together. Often the complexity is greater than one person can grasp, but if you are able to bring the right people together at the right times even the most complex problems can be solved or mitigated effectively. Often the personal relations formed as part of the project is what drives the project through the tough bends. People are much more likely to go the extra mile for people they know and have a positive relation with. It is much easier to ignore or turn down a request for help if it is from an anonymous mail address than if it is from a person you have a relationship with.
Finally, mail pollutes a project! Maybe not mails in general – but in particular the “cc culture” where everybody is trying to keep everybody in the loop to ensure that everybody knows what everybody is doing. This however only results in nobody knowing what anyone is doing because the important information is lost in the large amount of noise produced by endless e-mails. The worst thing is that cc is often no longer used consistently to inform people who have no required actions. Often it is random who ends up as primary recipients and who ends up in cc – especially over time as the mail trail and list of recipients grows. It significantly brings down project managers efficiency when they are cc’ed on everything (just in case, of course) and in larger projects receive hundreds of mails every day. Most of them not directly relevant to the project manager.
So what can we do?
Well it is quite simple: Talk to each other! When you need to reach out to someone make it a priority to walk to their desk and interact face to face. If that is not possible – grab the phone and give them a call. Only if that is not possible consider sending them an e-mail. And if you do – keep the content simple. If the issue is complex then schedule face to face time – or a phone call. That also goes if more people are involved – bring them together either physically or if that is not possible – on Skype. You will soon discover that getting people together eradicates misunderstandings, supports common conception and leads to better solutions faster.
People may look at you strange in the beginning – or think that you have just fallen out of the 1990’s – but don’t worry. They will soon (re)discover the efficiency of personal interaction 😊