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Exploring the Root Causes of our Email Overload
Bill Hoberecht - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

There is just too much email flying around.  Important messages are missed, junk email consumes your precious time, and the result is an enormous inefficiency in teamwork and collaboration. This article is first in a series about electronic communication in project environments in the workplace, and focuses on the problems with email overload that plague all of us.  Why are you sending and receiving so many emails?  It may be inherent in the structure of your project or the culture of your company – once you understand the shortcomings or your project’s communication methods, you can start introducing improvements that reduce email traffic yet increase the effectiveness of your electronic communications.

Article Summary

Have only 60 seconds to read this article?  Here are the highlights:


The Blessing and Curse of Email

Email is an extremely powerful mechanism for team communications – it allows asynchronous communication, can enable rapid broad-based information dissemination, is universally used, and can allow just about any possible form of electronic information to be communicated.

Unfortunately, there is no doubt that too much electronic information is clogging our email inbox.   Some email messages are too detailed or lengthy, some are not needed, and the rest are important.  With such high volumes of email floating around our time consumed in reading email can be excessive, and even then the chances of missing an important email are rather high.


For most project teams email has become a noisy, unreliable and overloaded channel.  We cannot assume that our transmitted emails are actually read and processed by the intended recipients; this is one tremendous downfall for using email as a primary communications channel.  Additionally, and significantly, email attachments are a burden to manage efficiently.


Unfortunate Trends in Email Use

When I first started using email, it was a tremendous boost to productivity – communicating across an organization suddenly required little effort and generally worked well.  As a supplement to personal interactions with team members, it provided a quick way to exchange key information.  With relatively few messages sent each day, it was safe to assume that each email would get the attention that it deserved.

 As email volumes starting growing, I noticed four issues coming to the surface:

  1. Email increasingly became a substitute for taking with others. 
  2. Dysfunctional uses of email appeared on the scene (e.g., “flames” with large distribution lists, “cover-yourself” emails with large CC: lists).
  3. Occasionally an important email would be overlooked.
  4. Team members were spending much more time processing email.  For many, a feeling of satisfaction came from ‘clearing the inbox’ – for some this was a daily goal, displacing the much more meaningful goal of making progress on a project.

Enter the mobile email technologies (e.g., Blackberry) and continuous access to email.  Couple that with an increasing use of email, and we are in a situation where each of the four issues has grown to become a legitimate problem. 

  1. Email is inappropriately used for handling complex issues that are best handled in discussions with others. 
  2. Dysfunctional uses of email are common.
  3. Important email is overlooked frequently.
  4. Team members spend too time processing email and are constantly distracted by incoming email messages.  ‘Clearing the inbox’ is rare, and is new source of stress.  For some, constantly checking for newly arrived messages and reading email has become akin to an addiction (paradoxically, handling or responding to email doesn’t always receive that same level of attention).


The Path to Slaying the Email Dragon

Now email volumes are just too high.  The answer isn’t to abandon email nor is it to spend even more time on email.  Also, it is not as simple as following rules of email etiquette.

Adopt an email strategy that will work for you and your organization.  This may require a bit of work and a dose of discipline.  Here’s a path that can work:

  1. Determine and address the root causes of all that email your project sends.  Ask “Why am I sending and receiving so many email messages?”  You may discover that the team structure, lack of empowerment (along with an absence of delegated responsibilities), and ineffective use of communications channels are the root causes of your email overload.  We’ll cover this in the remainder of this article.
  2. Develop alternate channels for electronic communication. For persistent information, avoid email entirely.  Use a project or organizational Wiki (or similar technology e.g, MS-SharePoint).  Blogs and project discussion boards can be much more effective than email.  More on this topic is in the second article in this series.
  3. Get better at handling your inbox.  A ‘Getting Things Done’ approach can do it, and is the conclusion of the third article.
  4. Get better at sending email (and knowing when not to send email).  The fourth article in this series addresses this topic.


Common Situations - Ineffective Email Usage

Widespread poor use of email causes problems in collaboration between the members of a project team.  Misplaced, unread, or ignored emails introduce a variety of inefficiencies to the operation of a project team – it just plain wastes time.  See if you can recognize any of these time-wasting situations in your own project experience:


Identifying the Root Cause of High Email Volumes

Most suggestions on reducing email overload will offer techniques that address the symptoms of the email problems you are experiencing – indeed, those methods can be helpful.  However, increasing your efficiency in handling email, while practical and useful, will not scale as volumes of email continue to increase.   Techniques that focus solely on efficient email practices are all aimed at increasing your proficiency in using a communications system that is inherently flawed.  Certainly many of the emails that you receive are necessary and important, but if you are overloaded with incoming email then there is a deeper problem somewhere. 

Your starting point is to identify ways to eliminate some types of email messages.  The first question to be answered for each incoming email is not “How to I process this email more efficiently.”  Rather, the first question is “Why am I receiving this email?” That is, analyze your email to discover aspects of the organizational culture or project structure that causes this email to be sent to you and then identify possible changes in project operation that will eliminate some types of email messages, rendering them unnecessary.

Let me illustrate this point with three examples of from analyzing my inbox:

  1. Just joined the organization.  When I take on responsibility for a new project or join a new organization, I seek to get into the flow of email – that immersion accelerates my ‘coming up to speed.’  For several weeks, I welcome this abundance of email; it is valuable to me.  However this value diminishes over time as I get involved in other communication paths – at this point I take action to remove myself from email threads and discussions.
  2. Too many requests for review or approval.   As an organizational leader, I find that my inbox is filled with requests to review a document, and my time is consumed in spotting basic problems that require re-work and a subsequent review.  This reduces my overall work capacity.  My remedy is to introduce a peer review mechanism that results in a high quality work product; in an accompanying change, most project documents are identified as not requiring my approval since the outcome of the peer review is a declaration of suitability.
  3. Mailbox cluttered with status reports.  At times I have had over thirty project status reports landing in my inbox each week, all with the expectation that I will read, understand and respond as needed.  There are many problems with this approach (mentioned in the second article of this series).  I’ve changed this situation by having my project managers organize project information, including status reports, on project collaboration web sites (e.g., MS-SharePoint or Wiki sites).  This has removed routine status reports from my inbox while still preserving the ability for me to view project status information.


Actual Root Causes (based on my inbox)

Based on an analysis of your project’s email behavior, you should target identifying at least two or three significant root causes that can be mitigated (or even fully addressed).  Here are some root causes I’ve identified through an analysis of my inbox at various times in recent years:


What’s Next?

If you are a project manager or another leader in an organization that is suffering from email overload, now is a good time to start digging into the situation.  Look for the source of the problem.  Start your journey by analyzing the email traffic that is flowing within the project team, with an eye towards identifying the root causes for all of that email.  Some of those root causes can be mitigated or even fully eliminated; identify those causes that, if addressed, will help the project team.  Prioritize the improvement actions to maximize impact, and then implement a few of the most impacting changes.