Monday, August 27, 2018

Talk to People Instead of E-Mailing Them!

Instead of sending an e-mail pick up the phone.
I have been a business professional for a long time.  I have been working in technology for two decades.  In that time, the world has changed radically for good and ill.  What has not changed is the time suck which is e-mail and how it is cancer for many organizations.

E-mail is as old as the internet.  Before the creation of the World Wide Web, the most common use of the internet was swapping files and sending e-mail.  Business organizations saw the utility of the application and used it as a means to create a way to cut down on the number of business memos.  What happened is the creation of a flurry of messages through companies as people used the tool to improve communication.  With the advent of e-mail and voice mail systems, managers hoped the worker bees in the cubicles would not ignore important information.  According to my experience, the cobra effect raised its venomous head.

The information did move more smoothly, but it created an incredible amount of noise which drowned out the necessary information. Instead of business goals; office gossip, invitations to lunch and memes began to clutter up inboxes.  The torrent of information became a tsunami as network systems were tuned to send SMTP messages.  Today, every file dropped into an FTP folder, or work item changed in JIRA or help desk ticket created generates an e-mail to provide you with a friendly reminder.  Today, a business professional has to act on hundreds and thousands of e-mails – daily.

The ocean of e-mail both trivial and critical is overwhelming.  It has created the inbox zero phenomena and a perfect storm of professional apathy.  All e-mail has the same relative importance, so it is easy to ignore messages equally.  Managers have used the folder routing features of Outlook and GMail to ignore inquiries and information from subordinates skillfully.  Help desk people with a particular form of sloth will ignore complaints for days.  The ability to use email as a tool of deflection seems, to me a credible reason why productivity has been relatively stagnant over the last decade.

What makes e-mail so insidious is that it is a written record of the conscious and unconscious mind of an organization.  An e-mail gives an employee an alibi creating the impression they spoke up about important issues even if management ignores that information.  Sexual harassment and gossip exist in the company e-mail database like an improvised explosive device waiting to dismember.  Finally, criminal and unethical behavior are spelled out for prosecutors and the journalists to expose.  It is why the e-mail database for Enron is still used by software companies to test e-mail products.  The criminal conduct and general idiocy of the Enron organization live forever.  Technology, human resources, and public relations professionals use the Enron e-mail database as a simulation of what might happen in an actual corporation.

To me, e-mail is not a tool for clear communication but a device for obfuscation.  It is the written equivalent of snowflakes coming together to create a blizzard of awfulness.  Individuals compensate with text messages sent between private phones, executives and other essential people having multiple phones to have conversations.  It is critical information being harder to share and keeping secrets for personal gain.  Finally, business professionals spend three to five hours each business day according to Forbes monitoring and authoring e-mails.  I think this is crazy.  Instead of helping customers, innovating the business or solving problems we are doing ticky-tacky work monitoring e-mail.

One of the agile principles says that face to face communication is preferable to other forms of interaction.  So my warning to any scrum master or agile coach is to pick up the damn phone, call people, and speak to them.  Get up from your desk and walk over and talk to people rather than hide in your office.  Use video conferences and insist that everyone turn on their camera so that we can read body language and know they are paying attention.  A lousy organization is not going to change if we insist on doing the same thing redundantly.  It is time to reconsider e-mail and how we use it.  It cannot hurt to try.

Until next time.

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