You've Got Mail (Like it or Not)

One major difference between "pure Agile" (the idealized process with its roots in small software companies) and Agile for the Enterprise is the necessity of managing distributed teams. In a multinational company with thousands of employees, it's nearly impossible to get an entire project team -- not to mention that ubiquitous cloud of stakeholders -- to work in one place. In this environment, asynchronous communication (through email, wikis, discussion forums, etc.) is critical to project success. To be a truly effective force for good in your projects, you need to be able to use these tools – and the short written message – to clearly communicate, coordinate, and collaborate with your project team.

So what’s the big deal about email? We’ve all used it for years and some of us can barely remember a time when it didn’t exist. Can’t we just send email at work just like we do everywhere else? Well, that’s the problem: some people do write emails at work just like the ones they write at home: unintelligibly.

Communication in any form is a two-edged sword. A well-written phrase can instruct, uplift, and inspire its readers. A poorly worded statement, whether spoken or written, has just as much power to confuse, distract, and annoy. How you use your communication skills comes down to a simple question: do you want to serve the dark or the light? For now, let’s assume you chose light. The next question is, “How can I make sure that my emails are helping to move my project in the right direction? How do I avoid being one of those people who elicit groans every time their email hits someone’s inbox?” Here are a few tips:

Know your audience
In order to have any impact at all, your message has to reach its intended audience. To do that, you have to make it through their filters, and that means tailoring your message and style to the needs of your readers. It also means resisting the urge to copy the entire world on every email, since it’s impossible to reach everyone with the same presentation. Your message should meet the needs of your audience, not the other way around.

So, to whom are you writing? Is it a group of analysts or a QA team, looking for detailed technical answers? Then send them specific details, organized in a manner that lends itself to easy review. Are you writing to a busy executive? Then make sure that the subject line is clear and all of the relevant information is in the first two paragraphs, because there’s a good chance that he or she won’t read any further. Are you broadcasting a status report to large group of project team members and stakeholders? Then format your message so that it can be easily scanned, using bullet points, short sentences, and bold type to highlight key points.

Keep it short
Save the long, rambling descriptions for your novel. Business email is about providing relevant information in the most condensed format possible so people can get what they need and get back to work. Your emails should be short and to the point, and that point should be clear.

This doesn’t mean that all emails should be no more than 500 characters long; some topics require a bit more space, and email may still be the best way to present them to a group. Just understand that email inherently encourages short attention spans, so your 2-page missive will likely never be read in its entirety. Prepare to be skimmed:
  • Keep your paragraphs short and use bullet points and headings to organize the information. Give your readers the visual cues to get the information that they need now and to find the other information in a second pass.
  • Place your critical points at the top of the message, rather than saving them for a grand and stirring conclusion.
  • Be prepared to calmly send people back to your message when it’s clear that they didn’t read it.
Of course, a bias toward brevity can also be taken to an unhealthy extreme, resulting in a barrage of one-sentence emails running back and forth between people as one person’s cryptic replies only lead to more requests for information. Keep it brief, but make sure that you provide all of the information that your readers need in a way that they can comprehend it.

Think before you send
There are times when the temptation to blast someone off the face of the earth with a cleverly phrased flame mail is so strong that you can taste it. At other times you may just be annoyed enough to send an intentionally unhelpful response without being overtly unpleasant. You may also want to complain to one person about someone else (all in the interest of “team-building,” of course). Before you hit send, remember two things:
  1. These words are about to leave your control and could be sent to anyone in the world
  2. This message will live forever on various email servers and archive tapes, the living legacy of your presence on this project

Are you still ready to release your thoughts into the wild? Then go for it. Otherwise, you might want to close that email window and go take a walk.

Know when to kill the thread
We’ve all been part of it: the Thread That Wouldn’t Die. Usually it’s the offspring of one or two people hitting the Reply to All button like genetically enhanced lab rats trying for one more food pellet, spewing multicolored questions and responses and “see my comments below” back and forth through the ether while the rest of the world looks on in frustration.

Don’t feed the beast. As a general rule, if you find yourself writing your third reply to the same email thread then it’s probably time to settle things in person. Pick up the phone, walk over to someone’s desk, or schedule a meeting with the people who still have questions. If the emails keep coming, send a polite reply saying, “I’ve set up a meeting to discuss this. Let’s kill this thread for now and I’ll publish the results after we meet.”

The written word will never die out as long as email and its compatriots are around to keep it alive. Harness its power today and make life better for everyone on your project.

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