6 Tips for Reducing Your Email

There has been a lot of “email hate” recently. I’ve seen heaps of articles and commentary about how email makes companies unproductive and wastes employee time, and how distracting email can be. I’ll sheepishly admit that in the past I too jumped on the email-is-evil bandwagon.

However I’m starting to have a change of heart on this, and now I don’t think email gets the positive accolades it deserves.

Ashton Kutcher recently asked his army of Twitter follows “If you could only use one app for the next 2 weeks what would it be?” He got lots of various responses but not one single person said email. Really? You could live with only Uber, or Instagram or pinterest for two weeks but not email. Sorry I don’t believe you.

In the internet world people can’t live without their email. Period.

The fact that no one mentioned email actually highlights the success of email. Email is now so ubiquitous that we don’t even think of it being in an app anymore. It’s become a fundamental part of our lives. You don’t think about using it, you just do, which is why people didn’t consider it when asked the question above.

Email is the most successful IT system ever built. It’s everywhere, everyday. People applaud Facebook for being the first platform to have a billion users. Yet no one mentions that every one of those users has an email address, maybe even two or three addresses. A recent report by The Radicati Group estimates there will be 4.9 billion active email accounts by the end of 2017. Given the Earth’s population is expected to be 7.4 billion, that is pretty staggering penetration.

Yet despite this remarkable market penetration every few years a new batch of tools comes along claiming to be the death of email. First it was wikis, then yammer and Jive had a turn and recently it’s Slack and Asana. Yet none of these have made a dent in email usage. If anything email usage has increased despite all of these competing systems.

And our obsession with email doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. In the past 12-months alone billions of dollars has been invested into email management and marketing tools including common names like MailChimp, RelateIQ, ExactTarget and Salesforce Marketing Cloud (a.k.a Marketo). So despite the Silicon Valley hype about the death of email it would appear that Silicon Valley doesn’t actually believe email is dying any time soon.

Not only is email used by everyone, it seems to be used for everything. It’s a communication and collaboration tool for both one-on-one and groups, it’s a to-do list, a file repository and transmission service, it’s a marketing tool and notice board. And in email’s defense it was never intended for half of these uses.

Which brings us to why there is so much email hate; we’re not using email the right way. It’s our fault, not email’s fault.

Email is like a Labrador puppy: if you train it properly it will be your best, loyalest friend but if you don’t train it properly it will dig up your garden and eat your slippers. If you train yourself and your team to use email appropriately it’s an amazingly efficient tool. We talk about email being unproductive yet I’d hate to see how unproductive things would be without it… want to revert back to faxing your clients and paging your employees?

The fact is email works. The problem for email is that it works too well. It’s slotted into our modern lives so seamlessly that now we take it for granted. It’s like that great Louis CK bit about how everything is amazing but we’re so ungrateful about it [link below].

However email clearly isn’t perfect. While the problems with email might be created by our own behavior this doesn’t mean the problems aren’t real. The biggest problem most people have with email is the sheer volume of email they receive. In a commercial setting most employees receive dozens of emails a day. Interestingly this number seems to increase in proportion to the size of your company. It is not uncommon for senior executives working in multi-national firms to receive literally hundreds of emails a day.

Wading through this mass of email is not only time consuming but worse, time wasting because so many of the emails you receive you really shouldn’t have received.

So how do we deal with this problem? How do we reduce the volume of email in order to make email more productive? The answer is incredibly simple: less is SO much more. Email would be considered less of a burden if there was less of it. Less noise, less distraction, less time consumption.

And all that is required is a little email etiquette between you and your colleagues.

Here are the top six best practices for reducing your email volume;

1. Reduce the number of people copied on the email.

Email makes it so easy to copy lots of people but that doesn’t mean you should. Before sending the email challenge yourself to think “do I really need to copy this person?”

Use this simple thought as a guiding principle: if you wouldn’t get out of your chair and walk across the office to tell someone about it then you probably shouldn’t email them about it.

Not only does copying someone on an email take up their time, but worse, it takes up yours because that person may feel compelled to response to your email. Even if their response is “Thanks” or “OK” that email still hits your inbox and you still need to clear it.

The less email you put out, the less you’ll get back.

2. Avoid “Reply All” unless absolutely necessary.

In spy movies they always have to flip a protective cover off before they can hit the nuclear launch button. Reply All should have the same safety mechanism… “Do you really need to copy everyone on your reply?”

Unless your response genuinely needs to be read by everyone don’t fill their inbox. This is bad email etiquette.

3. Make your purpose known up-front

Make the intention of the email very clear from the start. It’s good practice to indicate the purpose or objective of the email in the subject line. Such as “For information only” or “No reply necessary”.

Again, you get back what you put out so make your intentions for the email clear. Many emails don’t need a reply, or only need a reply from certain individuals. State whether you need response or not.

4. Avoid using pre-built group email.

Pre-built group or team emails (such as “Sales Team” or “Marketing Team”) are an easy way to notify a defined group of colleagues. However it’s too easy to over use these groups. Unless everyone in the group really needs to receive the email then don’t use the group. This is bad email etiquette and just laziness on the sender’s part.

Also, in the majority of cases these group emails will be for one-way notification or information only. Rarely will you really need input from the entire sales team on an issue.

5. Don’t be afraid to start a second email thread.

Often an email thread will get to the point where most of the input is coming from two or three people yet everyone else is still copied on it. Don’t be afraid to end the first email chain and continue the discussion in a new email chain with just the people who need to be involved. Otherwise you are filling your colleague's inbox unnecessarily.

You can always send an email to the group when the issue is resolved informing them of the outcome. I guarantee your colleagues would rather get one email with the final result than being copied on 20 they didn’t need to read.

6. Delete old emails

Let’s face facts, the search and retrieval mechanism on all email systems sucks. Trying to find an email from 6-months ago is incredibly painful and time consuming. Trawling through old email wastes valuable time so you should do whatever you can to make this more efficient. Permanently deleting low-value emails reduces the volume of email you need to search through later. Any email that you don’t need to keep, like marketing promotions or when someone replies “Ok” should be deleted to save you time later.

The beauty of these practices is their simplicity. There is nothing complex here, just a bit of effort.One thing I would thoroughly recommend is for companies to make email etiquette part of their induction process that way it breeds within the culture. If you train yourself and your colleagues to obey these simple guidelines the volume of your inbox will drop substantially. But it does take training. Think of the Labrador puppy. It needs consistent reinforcement but the end result is worth the effort.


Louis CK clip (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uEY58fiSK8E)

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The exact moment when a project fails

Sadly, projects fail all the time.

Do a quick Google search on failed projects and you’ll find a mountain of statistics about how often projects either run over time and budget, or fail to deliver the value that was expected, or both. It doesn't seem to matter what the industry is or where the project is being delivered, failure rates are staggeringly high. Regardless of whether the project is an IT implementation, the integration of an acquired company or the development of a new product, they fail on an all too regular basis.

Which begs the obviously question: if this problem is so ubiquitous why does it keep happening? Billions of dollars are spent every year on project management techniques, change control processes, training and cultural change. There are a plethora of project management tools to track and monitor progress, and armies of consultants charging top dollar to lead and deliver these projects. And yet they still fail on a consistent basis.

Well I'm about to give you the secret to successfully delivering projects, and it’s got nothing to do with high paid consultants or complex project management methodologies.

The secret to delivering projects successfully is knowing, in advance, the exact point when the project will start to go off the rails. Because if you know exactly when this occurs you can to address the issue before it becomes a problem. And the best part about this that it is the same point every single time… well actually it’s two points, but we’ll cover that in a minute.

Here it is: the exact point where the project begins to fail is before the project has even started. It is that tiny little gap between the project being given the green light and the project actually starting. It's the time between the approval and the project manager being appointed.

Why is this the point of failure? Because it's the exact moment when the project goes from being theoretical to actual. From expectation to reality. And critically, from the sales team to the delivery team. And it’s this last point that is the most pertinent.

One thing I want make clear is the definition of the sales team. This does not have to be an external sales team selling your company something. It can be that, but it can also be an internal team who are championing the project or initiative. The "sales team" is whoever is responsible for driving the initiative from idea, through planning and budget approval to sign-off. Whoever "sold" the company on the vision of the project is part of the sales team.

The crux of this problem is that in the vast majority of cases, whether it is handled externally or internally, the sales team and the delivery team are two separate teams. Very rarely does the sales team stick around to manage the delivery, or has the delivery team been involved in the sales process from the beginning. Standard procedure for most companies is that the sales team wins the work (or gets it approved) and then “throws it over the fence” to the delivery team who are expected to slam dunk the project despite knowing nothing about it until it lands in their lap.

This is the exact moment when the project begins to fail; during the dreaded handover.

The handover is usually the most poorly performed operation in any organization, regardless of the task or the teams involved. The reason for this is that there is a fundamental conflict of priorities between the two teams: the sales team has done their job - they got the project approved - and now they are ready to move onto something else. To them this project is now yesterday’s news. Meanwhile the delivery team are probably still wrapping up their previous project and want to get all the loose ends tied up before they can give this new project their full attention.

As such the handover is one of the most rushed, poorly executed tasks that most companies perform. I have literally witnessed multi-million dollars projects handed-over from one team to another in a single one hour meeting. These projects are destined to fail.

A successful handover takes time, real time. It took months to sell the company on the initiative and it will take months to implement it, so how can anyone expect the handover to be performed in a matter of hours? In order to successfully deliver the project the delivery team needs to understand all of the decisions that were made during the sales process. Not just the high-level stuff like why are we doing this project and what are we trying to achieve? But the nitty gritty: where did these estimates come from? Who did them? To what level of quality have we budgeted for the delivery? How many resources have been allocated to each section of the project, what is the logic behind these numbers? And on and on.

In order to get maximize the chances of successfully delivery, the project it must be set on the right path from the very beginning. This means a structured, in-depth handover is required and ideally someone from the sales team would be assigned to the project for at least the first third of the delivery in order to provide detailed context to the decisions made. While this might seem impractical, compared to pulling someone from the sales team back into the project 3-months later it’s a small sacrifice to make. And compared to the cost of the project failing this is a really small sacrifice to make.

A huge factor in the successful delivery of any project is the handover process. The more thoroughly this is done the more the delivery team understands the boundaries of the project, and the more they will understand how success can be achieved. The transition from sales to delivery is the exact point at which projects start to fail.

However I mentioned earlier that there was a second point at which projects fail, and interestingly this second point actually occurs after the project. It’s the post-implementation review (or PIR). How many of you have ever seen a PIR executed properly? I never have, not once.

The delivery team is under pressure to close out their current project and more onto the next one… which just got thrown over the fence from the sales team. Yet the PIR is essential for the successful delivery of the next project. If we don’t learn from this project we will almost certainly repeat the same mistakes on the next project. Just like the handover from sales to delivery, if the PIR is not performed thoroughly and the lessons learned disseminated across the organization then you’re setting up your next project for failure before it has even begun.

Handovers are one of the primary areas of failure. This is where miscommunication, misunderstanding and misalignment of expectations creep in. Instead of being seen as a chore, these transitional points should be embraced and given as much attention and structure as the project itself. Companies are always under pressure to deliver things faster, this is natural, however by taking just a little bit of time to focus on these handover points companies can save themselves a huge amount of pain in the long run.

 

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Copying me on an email is not a get out of jail free card

"But I copied you on that email".

Email is evil. A necessary evil perhaps, but still evil.

Email is like fossil fuels: we know it causes so many problems, we know it’s bad for us and we know there must be a better way, but we can’t give it up because it’s ubiquitous and convenient. And just like fossil fuels we are starting to see tangible evidence of its negative impacts.

Studies show the average employee spends a quarter of their day in email and checks their email 36 times per hour. Less than every two minutes!

While email can be a useful tool it clearly erodes as much productivity as it creates. A large part of this productivity erosion can be attributed to the sheer volume of email we receive. We spend so much time wading through email because, quite simply, we get so much of it. Regrettably most of these emails are a complete waste of time because you should never have been copied on them in the first place.

A symptom of this increase in email volume is an unfortunate trend where employees use email to cover their butts.

How many times have you heard this? "But I copied you on that email".

While other people's view may differ on this I’d like to make my position very clear: copying someone on an email is not a get out of jail free card. Just because you copied me, and seven other people, on the email does not mean you have absolved yourself of responsibility or that I know what you need from me.

There is nothing more unproductive than group email, especially when a mountain of people have been copied. By the time you hit the third "Reply All" no one has any idea what is going on or who said what first. There is nothing I hate more than opening my Inbox to find a chain of 21 emails because I know one of two things is going to happen: I’m either not going to read them all in which case I risk missing something important, or I am going to read them all and probably waste a huge amount of time when the email chain has, unsurprisingly, very little to do with me.

The greatest email hack I've ever seen was by an EVP at a company I worked at years ago. It was a large IT services firm that had thousands of employees and the EVP would receive hundreds of emails every day, the bulk of which were CC’ed emails from internal colleagues.

He got sick of wasting dozens of hours per week shifting through emails, most of which were only sent so the sender felt their butt was covered. In response he set-up a rule in his email whereby any CC’ed email he received from an internal staff member would automatically receive a reply with words to this effect. "I have NOT read the email you copied me on. It has been automatically deleted. If the issue genuinely requires my attention come talk to me about it."

So simple, so brilliant. Needless to say the volume of email he received dropped dramatically as did the amount of time he spent in his Inbox. It was remarkable how little actually needed his attention when it required people to make the effort to speak to him directly. I guess the butt covering wasn't so important after all.

This highlights a great guiding principle for email usage: if you wouldn’t get out of your chair and walk across the office to tell someone about it then you probably shouldn’t email them about it. This is especially true nowadays because there are so many better, more appropriate ways of communicating.

There are so many great productivity and collaboration tools on the market. Companies should embrace these tools and the productivity gains they generate. There are specific tools for collaboration, project management, task tracking and decision making. Why do so many companies attempt to use email and spreadsheets for this stuff? While email is great for certain things it is absolutely awful for others. Instead of trying to smash the square peg into the round hole, find the right tool for the job and leave email behind.

I've heard the argument that using new tools is distracting and changing the culture from email is too hard. However this is a very flawed argument. While any new system or process requires training and encouragement before it catches on, I bet the amount of effort required to achieve this culture change is a fraction of the total productivity lost compared to employees checking their email 36 times an hour.

It’s time to stop being scared of accountability

By now most people in America are aware of the mass automobile recall issued by General Motors. This recall was triggered by a faulty ignition switch on the Chevrolet Cobalt but has now spread to several other models totaling over 2.6 million vehicles (and counting). It would appear these faulty switches have contributed to numerous deaths which, understandably, has led to several audits and a raft of legal proceedings.

Amongst the various audit reports which have been produced was an internal review conducted by former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas. While this review was wide ranging and highlighted several areas in which GM failed to act, one of the recurring elements of the review is GM’s culture of excuse and lack of accountability. The Valukas report, running over 300-pages, identified systemic cultural issues of avoidance and inaction.
The Valukas report reads like a dissertation on how not to structure an organization or its culture. However while the Valukas report is exclusively written about GM, I wonder how many large corporations can honestly claim to be so different.

Let me ask you a question: have you ever sat through a meeting or been on a group email with your colleagues to address a specific issue, and then two-weeks later you’ve got no idea what the outcome of that meeting was? Does it usually result in another meeting to recap on the first meeting?

Whatever happened to that? Haven’t we done this before? When did we decide to do that? Based on the findings of the Valukas report I’m sure these questions are asked at GM every day. However I’m also sure these same questions are asked in almost every company in America.

Most companies are not only poor at making decisions but, more importantly, poor at ensuring everyone knows what was decided and who is accountable for the next steps. Think of how many meetings are required to get anything moving, or worse, how many “Reply All” emails flood your inbox, most of which you’ll probably never read. This behavior leads to miscommunication, painfully slow decision making and huge losses in productivity (the McKinsey Global Institute reports that 70% of employee time is spent writing emails and searching for old information).

If companies literally live or die by the decisions they make, why is this stuff so hard? It’s not usually one issue but a combination of reasons that creates these problems. However there are two factors which are particularly common; having too many players in the decision making process and a negative view of accountability.

Reaching clear decisions is often difficult because there are so many business units who need to be involved in the process. The more stakeholders involved, the greater the chance of confusion and things slipping through the cracks. Needing to involved procurement, legal, compliance, engineering and marketing in a decision usually means needing five different meetings. This not only slows things down but dramatically increases the chances of miscommunication and finger pointing.

Over the last few years much has been said about enterprise collaboration, and breaking down silos within companies. While substantial progress has been made in recognizing the need for collaboration, little has been done to structure collaboration in a productive way. Between the company intranet, email, instant messenger, meetings, text messages and tablets there is no shortage of ways to collaborate with your colleagues. However, collaboration without a definitive outcome is just noise. Unless a tangible, transparent decision is reached all this collaboration is just busy work.

Which leads two the second, sadly, scarier issue; accountability. The A-word is the source of great fear in most organizations. No one wants to be accountable for anything.

While this seems understandable, it is people’s avoidance of accountability that so often leads to things going wrong in the first place. By attempting to avoid accountability teams often exacerbate the problem by not taking definitive steps to fix it when it is first noticed. GM’s ignition switch issue is a prime example of this. From the preliminary findings it appears the problem could have been addressed years earlier if someone had taken accountability for the issue and fixed it.

CEO Mary Barra has vowed to change the culture of GM. She could start by showing her employees that accountability should not to be perceived as a negative thing, but can actually bring positive change, because accountability gets things done. By assigning accountability as part of the decision making process productivity can be dramatically increased because tasks actually get performed. If there had been a greater emphasis on accountability perhaps GM could have fixed the faulty switches before the loss of life. Sadly, they will never know now.

Corporate America can learn a lot from GM’s misfortune. While their problems have been made public, many companies struggle with the same issues everyday: too many unproductive meetings and emails, no clear outcomes and a fear of accountability, all of which leads to inaction.

In the digital age there is nowhere to hide. Simply shedding documents does not cover things up anymore. Past emails, documents and meeting minutes will be found. So instead of avoiding accountability perhaps it’s time to embrace it. With everyone trying to not be the person that drops the ball, often no one catches it.

Instead of trying to hide from accountability we need to acknowledge that this is becoming impossible, therefore accountability should be embraced. Project managers and team leaders are constantly frustrated by the finger pointing that occurs when things go astray. And this often happens because staff are confused about exactly who is accountable for what. Teams should focus on making clear decisions, with clear outcomes AND clear accountability. When everyone knows who is responsible there is less chance the ball will be dropped.

Welcoming Jeff Epstein to the Hexigo Advisory Board

Bringing a wealth of experience in finance and technology, Jeff Epstein has joined the Hexigo Advisory Board. Jeff serves as an Operating Partner with the venture capital firm Bessemer Venture Partners and as a Senior Advisor with the private equity firm Oak Hill Capital Partners. Jeff specializes in the IT sector, making him the perfect fit for cloud based Hexigo. Says Jeff, "Large companies automate their databases, customer interactions and financial processes, but when it comes to decision-making, they still use phone calls, email and meetings. I’ve long wondered: Why can’t we use modern software tools to make decision-making faster and better? That’s exactly what Hexigo does."

Jeff is the former Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of Oracle, one of the world’s largest technology companies. Previously, Jeff was Executive Vice President and CFO of digital marketing company DoubleClick, now owned by Google. Currently, alongside his above positions, Jeff is a Board Member for Kaiser Permanente, Shutterstock and The Priceline Group. Jeff earned his BA at Yale University and his MBA from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business.

Jeff became interested in decision management technology following a meeting with Hexigo founder James Cattermole. Says James, "Being a senior executive at some of the largest companies in the world, Jeff immediately recognized the need for technology like Hexigo". Understanding the knowledge Jeff could bring to the table, James quickly called on his expertise in offering him a position the Hexigo Advisory Board, "We are extremely excited to have Jeff join us. His vast experience and deep insight into the operations of large companies is invaluable to Hexigo."