Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Techniques: Using Email instead of Email Using You

Email is often a necessary evil in the world world; some people love the natural distraction, others rue the pinging sound every time their email program alerts them that someone not present wants them to read something.

Today we're going to talk about using email as your ally, but also how to know when to ditch your ally--say, when someone else may not be making the best use of it--and when to use in person "charm" to get things done.

Using Email as Your Ally

Your boss forgets he agreed to things, forgets the status you gave him, forgets the tasks he assigned you, or you have multiple bosses or employees who do some of all of those things.

1. Keep a daily log of what you're doing and for whom. It seems like a pain, but it can be as simple as a draft email saved to that folder with notes and times.

2. With a person or persons that forgets things, every time you talk to them you summarize the convo as soon as you get back to your desk, and you send an email indicating what was decided, what you are doing, etc. AND make a note in your daily note file. For multiple responders, be sure to include who made the decision and with whom they can take up any concerns or complaints that aren't you. For the boss who gets annoyed by being peppered with these emails all day long, but still needs them (or he/she forgets and takes it out on you) a summary email at the end of each day with notes from your daily draft email will do the trick nicely without peppering him/her with too much email.

Talking to People is Sometimes a Good Thing

Email is no longer your friend; you and another person or persons have traded emails multiple times and have not managed to settle an issue (even, and especially, if that issue seems very clear to you). Maybe this person just keeps avoiding answering the question, maybe they are having problems with the semantics you choose in your email. Whatever it is, it's getting frustrating, possibly for both of you, and the deadline isn't taking a coffee break to wait for you two to sort it out.

Get up and go find the person. This doesn't always work well--if you are in the US, for example, and they are in Thailand, its a bit difficult to explain to the expense department to pay for a trip to the Thailand offices. However, a phone call can be set up, which is the second best option under the circumstances.

My general rule of thumb is that if you've traded three or more emails and still have no resolution, you should set up a point of connection that allows for talking, and, where possible, sharing a white board or an electronic shared meeting so you can diagram things and/or gesticulate wildly to get across your point.

Often, things can be sewed up in five minutes that have floundered for days via email.

Email: Getting Permission (without having to beg too much for forgiveness)

Your boss or bosses or other approver NEVER RESPOND and CANNOT BE FOUND. However, she/he/they require approval or you cannot move forward with your work/project/etc. Deadline is looming and you get the occasional email from them asking what the hold up is, but you don't even hear crickets when you respond back that you're waiting on them to approve the thing.

You've heard the phrase that in some cases, "It's better to beg forgiveness than seek approval?" This situation typifies this.

However, you can have the best of both worlds...if you are willing to be bold.

A few weeks prior to the required decision, gather all subject matter experts you can find and get consensus on the answer/approval you require. Write up the notes of that meeting and that consensus. Send an email (with that email attached) requesting approval from the appropriate folks. Do other tasks as no one ever responds to your email.

A week from the date due, send another email with attachments of your previous emails. This email should say something along the lines of "If I do not hear back from you by (DATE), I will assume we are going with (Subject Matter Expert Supported Solution)."

The day of the decision, make another effort to find them/email them/calendar stalk them, etc. In absence of getting them, send a final email, again with previous emails attached that says "We're going to go with (Subject Matter Expert Supported Solution) in order to make the date. Thanks!"

Then follow through with that decision.

Note, I did mention you had to be "bold." Why? Because in some organizations, approvals are actually more important than deadlines. So be darn sure that in your case, the deadline warrants this, and/or the decision is sufficiently trivial that the approvers really don't care once they've had a chance to read the issue. This could backfire in your face, but sometimes, it's the only way to act when caught between a rock (deadlines) and a hard place (approver who won't respond to any method of communication you try).

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