Or is it a harbinger of something worse?
For quite some time now I have been asking whether email is still the productivity tool it once promised to be (and perhaps was) or whether it has become more of a productivity drain. I have always been convinced this is an important question and one that, if answered, could be of great benefit. Though recently my thoughts turned to what may be an even more critical email related question: “Is email killing innovation?“
Misery loves Arial (14 pt)
If you have ever had those hundred plus email days (perhaps even hundreds plus) or had to suffer through one or more of those messages that was only slightly shorter than “War and Peace” then you may already be of the opinion that email can at the very least be a productivity killer if not kept in check. In fact, I know it can. And I would bet I am not alone.
Many of us have seen the darker side of email; something I especially noticed in management and advisory roles. I have seen people take two or three late evening hours to carefully craft an email to address something that could have been addressed in a five or ten minute conversation. One might assume that it also took the recipient a long time to craft a carefully worded reply. And I would bet you’ve witnessed cases where email morphed from tool to weapon.
Recent headlines suggest I am not alone in my belief that email has become at the very least a serious productivity drain. Volkswagon indicated that it intends to shut off access to corporate email after hours. I recall reading of others that have done, or plan to do, the same. And the CEO of Atos intends to exile email completely by 2014 in favor of other methods of communication such as social media and – and this might shock some – face to face conversations. In fact, I worked for someone who shut down email between 10 AM and 12 PM and again between 2 PM and 4 PM every day because they felt employees were not talking. (They weren’t.) I can recall an email battle royal between two people who had no idea they sat two aisles apart in a cube farm. Once introduced to one-another it took only a few minutes of them working together to address the issue they had been working (together?) on.
“As harbingers preceding still the fates…” – William Shakespeare
So, it is with confidence that I believe that email can be at the very least a productivity killer. And if people are exhausted from the drain of the darker side of email I am confident it is at least possible that it can have a negative impact on innovation. Though is it the root cause of the problem?
A Twitter exchange with Mark Thiele (@mthiele10) caused me to think a bit differently. The conversation began with a more broad discussion of the Volkswagon announcement mentioned earlier. As we discussed additional questions about email’s impact on productivity it occurred to me that email might be an indicator of the health or level of dysfunction of a team. Perhaps even a leading indicator.
Following this very brief exchange I have become even more convinced that out of control email may be more of a symptom of a more crucial problem than a root cause.
As I thought about the conversation it occurred to me that I have witnessed teams in trouble, teams who had evolved away from their positive and productive cultures, where more than 100 (or even more than 200) email messages per day was the norm. Think about that. If it took only two minutes on average to read and respond to a single message then every member of a team like that would spend almost three and a half hours responding to email every day. And when it’s that bad they don’t realize it’s happening.
A snowball’s chance
So I am more convinced than ever that this is a symptom. Have you ever witnessed an email snowball fight? In dysfunctional teams email is often used as a way to throw work at other members of the team; often times when the sender believes the recipient of the work will be unable to respond. It only takes one rock-laden snowball to the head before the recipient realizes they need to build a snow fort of their own. And now email has become the mission and the team is working all hours on their email defense and offense.
Having stated that, I recall moving from teams where the above was the norm to new teams and feeling an uncomfortable dissonance in the evening. Why? There were no emails to answer. Inbound email had been reduced by at least an order of magnitude, email was always used to convey mission-relevant information, it was concise, and exchanges that became longer were interrupted with telephone calls or face-to-face conversations. The team accomplished much more productive work in a typical day, they were better rested and more positive and, I believe, more creative – more innovative. And, in hindsight, when we interacted via email with people from teams “in trouble” the differences in their style of messaging could be remarkable.
So, I still believe email is killing productivity. And I believe it is also harming innovation. Though not everywhere, and not for the reason I first suspected. Though I am sure it is possible that there are some cases where email is a drain simply because of an “absence of etiquette” or an immature email norm, I am more convinced that out of control email may be simply be a harbinger of larger, more critical problems such as a culture in trouble or a dysfunctional team.
Now for the most important questions: How can we leverage this information? Can we use email as a leading indicator of a team or culture that is headed for trouble? And how can we leverage this to turn things toward a more positive and productive outcome; one that improves productivity, creativity, innovative spirit, and our personal lives? If you have the answers to any these questions, or if you do not agree with my conclusions, I would be grateful for your comments.
Image courtesy of stock.xchng.