Examples of Poor Project Management - Mistaking E-mail for Communication

One of the mistakes I have encountered reasonably often in projects is with people (both managers and resources) mistaking e-mail for actual communication. After sending an e-mail, people assume many things, including that: it is read in a timely fashion, the message is understood by the receiver(s), it is enough to generate the action/result desired by the sender. Unfortunately this is rarely the case and overusing e-mail instead of more effective communication mediums (face to face, video-conference, phone or chat), easily generates problems in projects: people not taking action on time, people completing wrong or incomplete deliverables, messages being forwarded to the wrong audience and generating conflicts, etc. In this article I would like to cover why people tend to overuse e-mail, the problems encountered with this communication medium and how to figure out by yourself when you should not use e-mail but a more effective communication medium.

Why People Tend to Use Mostly E-mail?

First, let’s go through the reasons why people mostly use e-mail for communication in a business environment:

  • It is very easy to use. Anybody who can type at a computer can use e-mail.
  • It is very cheap - close to free. E-mail costs are very small compared to phone, video conferencing, travelling, etc.
  • Laziness is can be an important factor. Writing an e-mail can be very quick and easy. Searching for somebody for an actual face to face conversation is hard. So is trying to find a person on the phone, especially if that person has a busy schedule.
  • It is easier to mask issues when communicating via e-mail. You can tailor the message to "sound good" even if you are talking about something not really positive. Also, people will lack signals such as the tone of your voice or your body language, to notice that you may be hiding important details.
  • Fear can be another reason why people choose to communicate with someone mostly via e-mail. If you want to avoid a person (for whatever reason), it is easier to "fake" communication with him or her by sending e-mails instead of actually talking to the person.

While there might be other reasons for using e-mail versus other communication media, I think this list covers the most frequent scenarios.

Problems with E-mail Communication

While there are many advantages to using e-mail, there are quite a few disadvantages that you should consider when using it for communication:

  • It is asynchronous - the sender controls only when the message is sent, not when the answer is received. While this is also an advantage, especially in multinational environments, it can cause issues when communication needs to happen very fast, with quick answers and actions being taken as a result of the communication process.
  • E-mail is one of the most impersonal forms of communication. There is little emotional connection when communicating via e-mail, unless the people involved in the communication process already have a strong relationship established, or the subject being discussed is highly emotional. If you need to communicate with somebody for the first time, it is better not to use e-mail as your first contact. Also, if you discuss a very personal subject, with emotional implications, e-mail should not be your medium of choice.
  • It is easy to lose the context of the conversation. A conversation via e-mail can start between people having the right context to understand the messages being sent and received. However, the same message can be easily forwarded to others, who do not have the right information to fully understand the context and issues in question. This can lead to unnecessary conflicts or undesired action or inaction taken as a result of this loss of context.
  • Inconsistency is a common problem, especially when sharing documents between the members of a team. It is easy to get into issues due to people storing the wrong versions of the documentation in their inbox, forwarding incorrect or incomplete information to others, etc.
  • It is impossible to control the parties involved in the conversation. Even if you are sending your message to the appropriate parties that need to be involved in the conversation, they can easily forward it to unwanted or inappropriate receivers. If you need to have a conversation which can have important repercussions if it arrives to a inappropriate receiver, you should not use e-mail as the medium for the conversation.

Principles to Identify When it is NOT Effective to Use E-mail

After this long list with issues created by e-mail communication, you might be thinking that I am totally against e-mail. That’s not correct and not the message I was trying to convey. I use e-mail everyday in many contexts - sometimes correctly (and achieving the desired results), sometimes not. The message I am trying to convey is that you should be more mindful when choosing to use e-mail as your communication medium. In order to help and identify when you should consider other mediums, I have a list of questions you can use to find the correct answer:

  • Do you need any important decisions being taken as a result of the message you are writing? - If the answer is yes, then you should consider another communication medium. For easy & less important decisions e-mail can work (such as: Hey, boss, can I go home 30min earlier to pick up my kid from school?). However, for important decision making, never use e-mail as the medium for communication.
  • Do you need immediate action being performed as a result of the communication? - Remember that e-mail is asynchronous. It allows people to read and reply whenever they want or have the time to do it. If you have an emergency, even a simple chat works better than e-mail.
  • Have you had any previous contact with the receiver(s)? - If the answer is no, you should consider another medium as your first contact. People (especially busy ones) tend to ignore e-mail from people they do not know. In such a scenario, e-mail should be used only if it is the only way available for contact.
  • Do you need to start an open ended conversation for which you cannot really predict the end-result (e.g. brainstorming)? - If you do, it is better to do it via another medium. Remember that with e-mail, it is easy to lose the context of a conversation.
  • Are you about to start a personal conversation? - Then it is better to conduct it via another medium. When using e-mail, it is much easier for the conversation to end-up being read by people you would rather not read it. Also, e-mail is stored on the company’s servers and your account can easily be monitored (if it isn’t already).
  • Last but not least, a question which I think will turn out to be the most helpful: If you were to have a similar conversation with your spouse (or boyfriend/girlfriend) instead of a co-worker or business partner, would you use e-mail for it? - If the answer is no, then it means you are about to choose the least effective method of communicating.

When is E-mail a Good Communication Medium?

Enough with being "negative". Let’s talk also about the positive. When is e-mail an effective medium for communication. Let’s share a few examples which worked well in my experience:

  • Scheduling conversations held via another medium. With the use of the Microsoft Outlook calendar (or any similar solution), scheduling face to face meetings, video conferences, workshops, etc. can be done very efficiently.
  • Sharing briefing information/documents prior to an actual conversation via another medium. E-mail is a good way of sharing the appropriate documentation people need to have prior to an actual meeting.
  • Summarize decisions taken via other communication mediums. I guess you all know the concept of meeting minutes, right? Well... they are welcome, especially after a meeting where lots of things were decided and actions where agreed.
  • Brief status updates on projects, work progress, etc. E-mail works well for such things, if you are not sharing terrible news or you don’t need a decision being taken as a result of the update. If you are sharing terrible news or need a decision being taken, then make sure you schedule a conversation via a more effective medium and share the details for that conversation in your update. Do not let difficult conversations continue via e-mail.
  • Reminders - all except last minute reminders. If you need to remind somebody of something you agreed, e-mail works in the first half of the period you agreed. For last minute reminders, you should use more personal & real-time mediums of communication.
  • Answering brief & not urgent questions - if you need to answers to simple questions, which have no urgency, then it is OK to use e-mail, especially because it is asynchronous and allows flexibility for the person answering.

Other Communication Mediums to Consider

The are many other communication mediums you can use, all with lots of advantages and disadvantages vs. e-mail. I’ll just go briefly over a few which i consider important in a business environment:

  • The chat can be very useful when you need to have a brief, real-time communication with somebody who’s not close to your location. It is less intrusive than phone and can be an effective tool for sharing context, getting quick & small decisions taken or having personal conversations.
  • Team spaces or Wikis are great for collaborating on documents with your team. If you need to share documents, processes, etc. and make sure people always have the most up-to-date version, these are the tools to use.
  • Phone is reasonably cheap for communicating with people in different locations. If you combine it with screen sharing tools, it can be a reasonably effective way to conduct meetings.
  • Video-conferencing is the "cheaper version of travelling". Generally used by multinational corporations - it works great as a tool for conducting meetings.
  • Face to face conversations - the best way to communicate. Period.

Sharing YOUR Experience?

I hope I managed to make you reconsider when and how you use e-mail to communicate. The questions I shared, should help you in making the best decision. If you have others to add, or you simply want to share your experience, don’t hesitate to leave a comment. I am looking forward for an interesting conversation with you.

Related content:

Examples of Poor Project Management - Overusing Positive Words
Examples of Poor Project Management - Not Seeing the Woods for the Trees
Examples of Poor Project Management - Introducing an Intermediary between the Project Manager and the Client
Examples of Poor Project Management - How Not to Involve Your Project Board & Stakeholders
Examples of Poor Project Management - Planning Without Creating a Work Breakdown Structure