Monday, February 27, 2012

I Declare Email Bankruptcy!

“I Declare Email Bankruptcy”. This is a line that I have borrowed from the latest book by Neil Stephenson titled Reamde which I have just finished reading. The quote is not particularly central to the plot of the book but it immediately resonated with me. How many times do we all feel that there is just no hope to cope with all the incoming email and want nothing more than to throw in the towel and start all over? What we want is to declare email bankruptcy.

Some people suggested that this is the fault of the email application itself and that we can perhaps solve the problem by adopting different types of tools. There has been some news recently about different tools that improve dealing with the email torrent. For example, Fluent recently drew some attention with ideas on how to redesign email. Also, Social Media has been heralded as a solution to the email problem but in reality, you can get just as overwhelmed on your company’s internal social software. Sure, all of these tools can help but the problem of drowning in email cannot be solved with tools alone.

The root cause of the problem is our behavior, our discipline and our way of communicating with each other. Communication has to be taught. Professions that depend on clear and precise communication put their workers through often very rigorous training. Just think about the type of training required in any radio communication for air traffic control, law enforcement, or the military. Similarly, marketing people and corporate executives get trained on presentation skills, messaging, and talking to the press. In each case, communication requires a specific protocol, precision, and discipline.

The problem with email is that we take the skill for granted. Using Microsoft Office has become part of basic literacy and we expect every employee to know how to use email. But we shouldn’t confuse the skill to use the software with the skill to communicate. Those are not one and the same!

Let me give you an example that is all to frequent. When my manager delegates a task to me by forwarding an email request to me, I should not engage with the originator of the request while continuing to copy my manager on every single message. This often leads to a flurry of messages that just clog up his inbox and he is not likely paying any attention to. The correct protocol is to reply to my manager with a simple “I’ll take care of it” message and leave him out of the subsequent discussion. If I feel that it is needed, I can send him a status update later.

Continuing to copy my manager on every one of the subsequent emails says that I either feel insecure and want him to watch my every move or that I am completely ignorant of his own workload and time. Neither scenario helps my career aspirations.

Of course, some business processes may require a different communication protocol. I get involved a lot in various reviews and approvals of press releases, pricing proposals, product lifecycle reviews etc. Each one of them uses email and has to be done in a certain way. What I observe is that when we use email in a structured business process, it works reasonably well. But as soon as it gets outside the structured process, communication often becomes freewheeling.

This is the type of training that we don’t get today. And boy is it needed! The next time you complain about your overflowing inbox, ask yourself if it really is the fault of the tool.


  1. An excellent lesson in email Netiquette! We can definitely take advantage of this "plan before using" and common sense approach you've outlined for more than just email. I'd make the case that SharePoint Site Sprawl is in fact not the fault of SharePoint, but (you guessed it) the user! We must PLAN for success!

    1. Thanks, Dave! I'm seeing a blog post by a SharePoint guru coming soon...

  2. Sometimes when I read a blog post, I really connect with it. I feel like author could be speaking directly to me.

  3. Mark Buckley

    Your site is very informative and your articles are wonderful.