People who have worked on projects with me over the years will
be familiar with these tips that I’ve often evangelized about – some might even
mention the phrase “Todd’s favorite soap box” if asked. Admittedly, I am
passionate about the following.
Consulting projects generate an avalanche of e-mails
throughout the course of the project in the form of clarifications, changes, problems,
status updates, and any number of other topics. It is important to recognize
that most consultants are involved in multiple projects at the same time thus
amplifying the situation even more.
Dealing with e-mails is a disruption to the customization
development process and has a very real cost both in hours to complete each
task as well as overall delivery dates. I’ve read studies indicating that a
common mental reset time for developers is 10-15 min given a 1-2 min disruption.
My own experiences on various development and consulting teams over the years
would tend to agree. And yet, we must be responsive to *some* e-mails. How can
we bring some order to the chaos?
Recommendations and best practices:
Recipient Lists – Use To/CC/BCC appropriately
Subject Line - Well structured and specific
Content - Single topic whenever possible
Body - Well organized and well formatted
Importance flags – Use High-Low importance flags
Mobile Phone Email – Respond clearly or wait!
Turn off e-mail – 1-2 hour work-only sessions
Use To/CC/BCC recipient lists appropriately. This conveys important
information to the recipients of the e-mail in terms of primary and secondary
responsibility indicating who the e-mail is actually targeted at. Take the
extra second or two to review which recipients are in the To vs. CC list. Use
BCC to keep non-project people (ex. Sr. Management) in the loop when. Using BCC
will hide those Sr. Management names from other e-mail recipients and will
avoid the recipients inaccurately reading anything into the communication about
priority, politics, etc.
Must be well structured and specific. This is possibly the most
important tip and will serve to minimize disruptions for your technical staff
Recommended subject line template
<Customer> - <Topic Area> – <Specific
For example (assume XYZ is initials of Customer Name)
This subject gives recipients enough information to
determine if they should disrupt their current task to read the entire e-mail
at this time.
We’ve found that customers do not mind seeing their company
name/initials at the beginning of the e-mail subject line. We’ve also found
that many customers begin to structure their e-mail subject lines in more
organized and meaningful ways as well.
Important Rule – never, ever, reuse an e-mail for a
completely different purpose, friendly chat, etc.This will cause confusion for technical
people in particular as they try to suspend the multiple details of their
current work and shift mental focus to what they believe to be the topic of the
e-mail only to be confused by the e-mail content.
Stick to a single, narrow topic whenever possible. This is
one of the more difficult things for team members to adapt to at first, however
it is something that really pays off. Sticking to a single topic ensures that
the thread of replies and counter replies will be about that specific topic
only and when resolved, the specific e-mail thread will end with a clear
understanding of final decision.
This will result in many e-mails and is something you might
prepare the customer or first time project members for.
If there are topics that are tightly related, then use of a
single e-mail is appropriate and necessary. However, it will be even more important
to structure the e-mail body well (next).
The e-mail body should be well organized and well formatted.
There are important, timely, and probably non-trivial questions that you need
clear actionable responses to – those responses can only be as clear and
accurate as the questions themselves.
For multiple topic e-mails, always provide an outline and then
label sections using those outline items.
For specific questions, begin a new line with “Q:” or “Question;”.
Leave space after the question for the recipient to use to reply in-line later.
We live in a multi-media world with rich display devices – make use
of fonts, color, etc to organize your information.
When appropriate, use screen capture and other graphics to
ensure all parties share a common frame of reference.
Use High-Low importance flags when appropriate. Again, this
helps the recipients organize their time, minimize disruptions, and respond
quickly when absolutely necessary.
Mobile Phone Email:
Respond clearly or wait! If you are not willing to type out
clear and complete responses due to the form factor of your mobile device
keyboard, then do not respond until you are at a computer. Clearing your e-mail
box while at lunch or in a meeting might appear to save you time, but it might
be at a cost to the project and other team members. Incomplete or implied
responses will only lead to ambiguity which will usually impact the project
during the critical final phase just prior to roll-out.
Turn off e-mail:
Consider allowing (even requiring) the technical staff to turn
off their e-mail for 1-2 hour work-only sessions. For a dire emergency the
telephone will still function to alert them. Disabling the Outlook icon tray e-mail pop-up notification feature might also help better manage the disruption.