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Best Practice Tips for Consulting Project Communications – Ordering the Chaos

by Employee on ‎02-18-2010 10:46 AM

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



Recipient Lists:

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.



Subject Line:

Must be well structured and specific. This is possibly the most important tip and will serve to minimize disruptions for your technical staff in particular.


Recommended subject line template

<Customer> - <Topic Area> – <Specific Topic>


For example (assume XYZ is initials of Customer Name)

Subject: XYZ – Account Summary Report – Missing Fields

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.



Importance flags:

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.

by Gold Super Contributor
on ‎02-18-2010 12:03 PM

Right on!


Email "clutter" can completely drive you off track. I don't know how many times where I've been in a "deep dive" inside a problem only to allow an email to distract me and then have to reset to zero....


Another area that can distract you are phone calls. Call screening can help you keep that under control. By call screening I mean checking the caller ID BEFORE answering. Most of the time you can let it go to vmail. 

by Employee
on ‎02-18-2010 12:46 PM

Great observation about phone calls and screening via CallerID when appropriate RJ. While I appreciate the need to be responsive to other project team members and customers - there is a balance to be struck, particularly for people seeking to accomplish complex technical tasks.


The book - The Four Hour Work week  has some interesting exercies on turning off e-mail all but 2-3 times a day, screening all calls, and blocking certain hours from all distruption.


With the SMS Text, IM, Twitter, etc technologies we have today - it is easy to forget that it is our time to manage effectively and that for many of us (Sales and Marketing people probably not included) we do not need to be instantly accessible and immediately responsive 24/7.


All these communications technologies are great - but like any other technology, the winning companies find the most effective and efficiant ways to use them.

by Nickel Contributor
on ‎02-21-2010 06:27 PM

Multi-tasking is a term that has crept from processor/OS design into popular usage. It might be time to bring along it's companion entries in to the lexicon.


The term for when you are spending more time task switching than you are doing productive work is called "Thrashing".


A very vivid visual, and oh so appropriate...



by Astute Commentator
on ‎02-24-2010 06:33 AM

The misnomer in Todd’s post is in referring to the topic as his soap box. It isn’t. It’s his obsession. Todd worked with my team on several projects and beat these techniques into us. We still use them today and it greatly reduces the confusion, clutter and thrashing (thanks Walter).


We use his suggestion for the email subject line to project calendars. We have a separate Google calendar for each client. We schedule an all day event for each deliverable and the event subject is <client>: <deliverable>. A typical small project might have three or four deliverables over the same number of weeks. Turn on the calendars for all your active clients and you can see your work schedule and deliverables for your whole team.


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