ARTICLES • 07-02-2014

Phnom Penh, CAMBODJA


E-mail has intuitively been introduced as an apparently cheap way of communicating. The truth, though, is that 1-2h of daily e-mail management is far from negligible. Published statistics rarely go below $5.000 USD/employee/year (rising), and managers are rightfully growing eager to better analyze its Return On Investment.
While I certainly do not challenge e-mail effectiveness, I do believe that addressing the 'responsibility culture' can uncover ways of significantly cut down the bill.
Putting a price on "CC's"
A lot of CC's means a lot of e-mails, and that has a price. Every message demands writing and reading time. If you take 10min writing a 5min e-mail for 10 people, that's about 1 hour work of total investment. "Was there a cheapest way to achieve the same goal?" is a worthwhile question.
Another cost of many e-mails is potential disruptiveness. If you have the habit of keeping an eye on your inbox all the time, bare in mind that 100 emails/day average around 1 each 5min (considering 8 working hours). This may represent a big cost in focus and conclusiveness if not managed appropriately.
Finally, the effort needed to process the content of a message is a key productivity metric. David Allen set the ground for this: a well written message makes it fast and clear to answer "what's the next action?". If you frequently find yourself drowned in a long text, trying to figure out what is it that you're supposed to do, something's wrong. CC's, in particular, should by definition have an implicit meaning of "information only", but that's often not the case. 
What has to be replaced
If you merely try to cut the use of CC's without replacing its benefits, things will go nasty. People need to share information and ideas, and get other people involved. People need bragging about their achievements. People even need to use some political CC's meaning: "Now that big daddy's watching us are you going to do it or what?".
But specially, if people don't have a solid definition of who is responsible for what, and what that means, everybody needs to know everything, just in case. It's like when kids play soccer: a crowd of players around the ball. It may seem quite ok to lose the ball in the crowd, because someone else from my team will eventually get it back, but that endangers individual responsibility. At a cultural level, too many CC's usually mean 'unclear commitments': who is responsible for what, exactly?
Responsibility - what is it?
Among specialists, it's often heard "responsibility is a one-to-one commitment". That's like the brick of the wall, the atom of the molecule. Break it and everything collapses. I'm responsible for something to someone else. It's a one-to-one promise. A commitment to do whatever is within my area of influence to achieve a certain output. 
An important part of the concept of being responsible, is that if I foresee the impossibility of following through, namely because something out of my control happened, it's mandatory that I immediately report it. This allows for renegotiating a new achievable promise, or eventually get help to keep the initial one. When Steve Jobs mentioned he didn't control much, he explained he just fully trusted that nobody would ever dare failing a deadline, without prior notice.
As to our CC's topic, being the one responsible I have to respond for it. The responsible person is thus the implementation of some sort of communication router. She collects all info, requests and questions, redirecting as needed. She also provides status reporting periodically to the team and/or board. This should be done through an action-oriented executive summary report, not by CC'ing everyone all the time with each little detail of the soap opera. It's like professional soccer: efficiently, each player has his own area and is individually responsible for it. 
Of course, because there's no "crowd" around the ball, each pass has to be flawless, higher stakes are in place. Empowerment and accountability are a critical engine for performance, and foster efficient communication routing and reliable status reporting methods. For this to happen, responsibility definition and re-definition (the world changes fast) must be a common mind-set.
One day we'll probably stop using e-mail apps as our daily cockpit manager. Action control, not communication, will become the focus, and like in project management apps, our "messages" won't be such text-free: there will be standard requests and updates. Owners will likely be formally assigned to issues, and routing clearer. Reporting will get both easier and more efficient. Broadcasting news will probably resemble facebook streaming, free of action management. It will be amazing, yes, but until that future comes, e-mail is a communication tool we need to master and be responsible about to keep productive.
This article was published in the 17th edition of Productive Magazine
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