Monday, February 29, 2016

E-mail - the Enemy of a Scrum Master

E-mail can be the enemy
One of the biggest challenges for a scrum master is communications.  The scrum master is sending e-mails, attending conference calls, and walking around attempting to understand how the sprint is going and what people are saying about it.  It is not an easy job.  It requires great listening skills and the ability to communicate vital information in just about every format a modern business can throw at you.  This week I wanted to discuss e-mail because this old standby of the office is the least effective of all the tools at your disposal.

Many argue that the modern internet was born when the first e-mail was sent in 1972.  In the forty plus years since, I have seen how the technology has evolved from something helpful to the bane of a business person’s existence.  Since e-mails had a recipient and the ability to carbon copy people, the e-mail quickly became a way to disseminate information in a large organization.  Sadly, many e-mails resembled the memos which were distributed before the advent of e-mail.

E-mail as we know it today really didn’t begin until the release of two programs which changed business irrevocably.  Lotus Notes and Microsoft Outlook became the do dominant players in the e-mail game.  Notes not only featured e-mail but primitive forms which could be routed through the organization like paper forms.  Workflow as we know it was born.  Outlook was different, it was a stand-alone tool to send e-mail.  You could attach files to it and forward messages in order to keep people informed.  It was supposed to save paper and speed up collaboration.  What it did was create a vortex of time sucking busy work.  

E-mail communications quickly mirrored the dysfunctions of their parent organizations.  Organizations which were hierarchical demanded reports be forwarded up the chain of command.  This meant that the higher up in the organization you went the more e-mail you received from subordinates.  Soon upper and middle managers were swamped with e-mail.  Decisions were not faster, they took more time as decision makers waded through increasing volumes of e-mail.  E-mail also echoed the lack of trust in organizations as people sent out e-mails to inform others if something was going to go wrong and then use the mail not being read in a timely manner as an alibi.

Soon managers were having conversations similar to this in their offices,

“That sale should not have gone through.  The margin is not high enough and I have to do a major revamp of the vendor portal to make that happen,”

“I sent you an e-mail about it.  I did not hear from you so I decided to go ahead.”
…and so on.

Sometimes as a scrum master I have sent e-mail messages to senior leadership and I have gotten one word responses or the content of the mail has been misunderstood so badly that I have had to print them out hang them on the white board in my bosses office and ask what part of my writing was unclear.

E-mail does have a written record of what was said but if there is too much of it, the record is lost in the constant noise of information modern business people receive.  So e-mail is a poor tool in conveying information to others.  This is why one of the principles behind the agile manifesto is “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.”  Instead of sending an e-mail get up from your desk and talk to the people who make decisions.  Instead of sending an e-mail, pick up the phone and make a call.  Instead of sending an e-mail, start a video chat with the person.

I understand that executives have gotten very good at learning how to be unavailable to the “peasant masses” that work for them but as a scrum master we have to be the ones to convey information both positive and negative.  Otherwise, team success will continue to get lost in a flood of e-mail.

Until next time.