When we work together to resolve issues or make decisions, or even to gather information, we engage in a series of exchanges. We ask and respond to questions, report status, propose explanations, provide opinions, and much more. We do this in email, by teleconference, in face-to-face meetings, and at times, by text message. One exchange can even span several of these media. But because so many of us are moving targets, email has become a primary means of carrying out these exchanges. It's so dominant that we use it even when we don't need to, and that's where the trouble begins.
Exchanging email is a kind of conversing, but it differs from telephone and face-to-face conversation in important ways. Email doesn't represent emotive content faithfully; the writing skills of authors of email are variable; and authors tend to dash off messages without careful thought. I could go on.
But four properties of email exchanges expose participants to elevated risk of making wrong decisions. These four receive much less attention than they deserve. Here in Part I are two of these properties.
- End-to-end latency
- In the context of email exchanges, latency is usually defined as the time between origination and receipt of a contribution to the conversation. We can call this form of latency transmission latency. It can differ for different participants. Perhaps more significantly, and more usefully, latency could be defined as the time between the author's conceiving a contribution and the recipient's reading it. We can call this kind of latency end-to-end latency. What happens during the end-to-end latency period includes all transmission delay, but also delays caused by workplace interruptions, offsets in the sleep-wake cycle, urgent demands for the attention of authors and recipients, and other factors.
- In some Email exchanges are unlike
Time delays can
have severe effects.instances, end-to-end latency can be infinite. This happens when spam filtering blocks or quarantines messages; when authors intend to contribute but fail to do so for some reason; when recipient errors or high incoming email volume cause recipients to overlook messages; or when recipients misinterpret messages and on that faulty basis elect not to respond.
- Duration of message content validity
- In synchronous meetings — face-to-face, live video, or telephone — when a participant's contribution is invalid in some respects, other participants can offer corrections almost immediately or relatively quickly. The original contributor might then either dispute or accept the correction, equally immediately. Invalid contributions have relatively short lifetimes.
- By contrast, in email exchanges, invalid contributions can have longer — sometimes much longer — effective lifetimes, because of the longer end-to-end latency of email messages. And during the time in which the invalid content is extant, it can spin off additional content that itself can be invalid. When contributions correcting the original message finally appear, the original poster might not see them immediately, which further delays final resolution of the issue.
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- Interviewing the Willing: Strategy
- At times, we need information from each other. For example, we want to learn about how someone approached
a similar problem, or we must interview someone about system requirements. Yet, even when the source
is willing, we sometimes fail to expose critical facts. How can we elicit information from the willing
- Virtual Presentations
- Modern team efforts almost certainly involve teleconferences, and many teleconferences include presentations,
often augmented with video or graphics. Delivering these virtual presentations effectively requires
an approach tailored to the medium.
- The Limits of Status Reports: II
- We aren't completely free to specify the content or frequency of status reports from the people who
write them. There are limits on both. Here's Part II of an exploration of those limits.
- I Don't Understand: I
- When someone makes a statement or offers an explanation that's unclear or ambiguous, there are risks
associated with asking for clarification. The risks can seem so terrifying that we decide not to ask.
What keeps us from seeking clarification?
- Unintended Condescension: I
- Condescending remarks can deflect almost any conversation into destructive directions. The lost productivity
is especially painful when the condescension is unintended. Here are two examples of remarks that others
might hear as condescension, but which often aren't intended as such.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
- When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
- And on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
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