E-mail, "cc's," and communication costs
While e-mail has proven to be a very effective tool, there’s certainly room for efficiency. In a productive environment, the phrase “Why on earth did I get this message?” mustn’t become too familiar.
E-mail has been introduced as a cheap way of communicating. Today, however, e-mail management consumes 1 to 2 hours every day. Published statistics showing how much it costs the companies rarely go below $5.000 USD/employee/year (rising). Managers are rightfully growing eager to better analyze its return on investment.
While my goal isn’t to challenge e-mail effectiveness, I do believe that addressing the “responsibility culture” can uncover ways of significantly cutting down the bill.
Putting a price on “cc’s”
A lot of cc’s means a lot of e-mails, and that has a price. Every message demands writing and reading time. Writing e-mails to 10 people (assuming 5 to 6 minutes spent on reading, composing a reply, and sending one message), that’s about one hour work of total investment. It’s worthwhile to ask whether or not there is a cheaper way of achieving the same goal.
Another cost of many e-mails is potential disruptiveness. If you have the habit of keeping an eye on your inbox all the time, bear in mind that 100 emails per day means approximately one message every five minutes of eight working hours. This may strongly affect your focus management.
Finally, the effort needed to process the content of a message is a key productivity metric. David Allen set the ground for this when he said that a well-written message makes it fast and clear to answer “what’s the next action?” If you frequently find yourself drowned in reading a long text, trying to figure out what is it that you’re supposed to do, something is wrong. Cc’s, in particular, should by definition have an implicit meaning of “information only,” but that’s often not the case.
What has to be replaced
If you try to cut the use of cc’s without replacing its benefits, things will go nasty. People need to share information and ideas and get other people involved. People need to brag about their achievements. People even need to use some political cc’s, meaning, “Now that Big Daddy is watching us, are you going to do it or what?”
The worst situation is when people don’t have a solid definition of who is responsible for what, and what that means. Then everybody needs to know everything, just in case. It’s like when kids play soccer. A crowd of players run after the ball. It may seem quite OK to lose the ball in the crowd, because someone else from my team will eventually get it back, but that endangers individual responsibility. At a cultural level, too many cc’s usually mean “unclear commitments”: who is responsible for what, exactly?
Responsibility — what is it?
Responsibility is a one-to-one commitment. It is like the brick in the wall, the atom in the molecule — break it and everything collapses. It is a one-to-one promise. A commitment to do whatever is within my area of influence to achieve a certain output.
A responsible person reports immediately whenever he or she foresees the impossibility of following through (because something unexpected or beyond control happened). This allows for renegotiating a new achievable promise or eventually getting help to keep the initial one. When Steve Jobs mentioned he didn’t control much, he explained he just fully trusted that nobody would ever dare fail a deadline without prior notice.
Back to our topic of cc’s. If I am the only one responsible, I have to respond to the email. The responsible person is a sort of communication router who collects, requests, questions, and redirects all the information as needed. The responsible person also regularly provides status reports to the team and/or the board. This should be done through an action-oriented executive summary report, not by cc'ing everyone all the time with each little detail of the soap opera. It’s like professional soccer: each player has his own area and is individually responsible for it.
Of course, because there is no crowd around the ball, each pass has to be flawless. Empowerment and accountability make up a critical engine for performance and foster efficient communication routing and reliable status reporting methods. For this to happen, responsibility definition and redefinition (the world changes fast) must be a common mind-set.
Top 5 strategies to responsible communication
Test if you know who is responsible for what. Try not using the “cc field” for a whole week Assign only one recipient to each message (“reply to all” is equally forbidden). You’ll be amazed! Then come back to the real world and apply what you’ve found out.
Implement efficient one-to-one communication circuits, as well as the reporting method, right from the start. With a new client or a new project with another department, name an interface person to each side and make that person the main communication channel. Then set up a reporting method that puts everyone on the same page, inspiring trust while keeping efficiency.
Things change and not all is black and white. That’s ok. Work on clearing and updating commitments all the time. Especially on projects that are not going well. Asking who’s going to do what doesn’t have to be unfriendly. Don’t settle for unclear responsibilities.
Don’t ping-pong e-mail replies more than three times on the same subject, especially if no clear progress is happening. You are most likely on the wrong channel, and it’s costing you (or your company) good money. Just call!
In the first lines of every e-mail, make the following two aspects clear:
- Why are you getting this?
- What do I want from you?
Then handle the details. This will keep healthy responsibility circuits and provide for fast message processing/routing.
One day we’ll probably stop using e-mail apps as our daily cockpit manager. Action control, not communication, will become the focus, and just like in project management apps, our messages won’t be so text-free. There will be standard requests and updates. Owners will likely be formally assigned to issues and will be routing clearer. Reporting will get both easier and more efficient. Broadcasting news will probably resemble Facebook streaming, free of action management. It will be amazing, yes, but until that future comes, e-mail is a communication tool we need to master and to be responsible with to keep productive.
Photo: Flickr / West Point - The U.S. Military Academy CC BY 2.0