Will email be your project’s silent assassin?

Carl Heise

I see this time and again: two-thirds of the way through a project an issue arises, but instead of stakeholders coming together to find a solution they opt for confusion and blame, knocking the project off course. Why? Because they didn’t get the chance to reach alignment before the going got tough, and they tried to bridge the gap with the least forgiving of all communications channels – email.

The divine state of alignment

I can’t emphasise enough how important it is for all relevant parties to come together at the start of a project to align around the organisation’s desired outcomes, the problems they face and possible solutions. The effectiveness of collaboration and co-design to achieve alignment and implementation has been proven to reduce the risks to projects posed by misunderstandings, resentments and conflicts.

This point was reinforced recently by two clients who brought their problems to Brooke’s SHIFT Rapid Problem-Solving lab. Thanks to the high level of alignment achieved with the key stakeholders invited to the lab, both clients achieved extraordinarily fast turnarounds from diagnosis and solution design to implementation. This alignment didn’t just happen. It was a product of the participants’ willingness to engage, which was enhanced by the creative SHIFT environment, and the collaborative problem-solving mindset fostered by our facilitators.

What if it’s too late, and a spanner has lodged itself in the works?
Pick up the phone! Please!!!

Call everybody in to discuss the problem, and prioritise an alignment conversation at the start of the meeting. Do not, I repeat, do not send news of, or try to solve serious issues via email. How many times have you felt the heat rising inside you on reading an email, only to later realise you had completely misread the situation? Emails, especially hastily drafted emails, are riddled with ambiguity. They don’t come with the helpful cues of tone of voice or body language. They shift responsibility on to their readers with expectation of reply. Time and effort are wasted clarifying, ameliorating, retracting and apologising for them. They result in confusion, blame and barney.

Best case your colleague, stakeholder, or boss will think a little less of you post email mishap or skirmish, worst case, that $20 million project is going back out to tender.

Killing off email before it has a chance to attack

Pressure and the speed of business changes mean we need to embrace the most time efficient tools we have. The obvious first preference is face to face (preferably with coffee) followed by video conferencing and the trusty telephone. Despite its promise of efficiency, I advocate by-passing email as your next option in favor of collaboration platforms like Yammer, Slack or Zoom. These options increase your reach, are easy to use and give you data you can learn from. They can help you to solve the problem you have, instead of creating additional problems.

I have a peer at NRMA who is currenty leading a complex enterprise-wide improvement project. He is running the entire project on Yammer. Not a single email has been sent. The project is accessible and visible to all stakeholders, and none of the communication is landing in the “dead end” of people’s email inboxes. The project lead has been able to track interactions with project documents and announcements and demonstrate reach beyond the project team. This approach has created a virtual space without boundaries that invites anyone in the company to participate. It has reduced backchannel email spam to zero, replacing it with a transparent change and communication platform with pull-power.

Yes, you might still need to check your inbox for clients or stakeholders still chained to email, but you can control the platforms created for your projects. And those you bring on board will thank you.

The takeaway

Communication is the heartbeat of our business lives. We need to prioritise it and get it right. Short-cuts won’t save you time in the long run and won’t reduce your problems.

So, the takeaway? Align early, co-design and embrace new communications technology (remembering that email was invented in the 1970s).