Tenet of management design: If you don’t have a system, it’s probably being done over email

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Managers seem to have a lot of email to work through. Especially managers in office environments. Lots and lots of emails. Managers are always checking emails, responding to emails, catching up on email. Why?

It’s probably because there isn’t a system for whatever is trying to be accomplished via email. Some sample tasks that managers perform via email:

1. Providing team expectations

2. Task direction

3. Problem solving

4. Performance feedback

5. Brainstorming

6. Addressing escalated issues

7. Developing and reviewing work output (documents) of the team

8. Unblocking issues

9. Getting buy-in from partners

10. Answering knowledge questions

11. Coordinating team members to work with one another

12. Giving and getting status updates

13. Promoting the team performance

14. Discussing hiring decisions

15. Doing budgeting

16. Organizing a meeting

17. Reviewing business/team insights

18. Determining the agenda of the meeting

19. Giving follow up after the meeting

I know that I’m missing dozens of other tasks that managers perform, but this sample gives a feel for how integrated email has become in the experience of being a manager (or any employee in an office).

So the question should be – is email the best system to perform these and other tasks? In absence of a system, in many cases email is preferable. But could there be better tools for doing the above things?

Email is a robust and powerful tool for communication. But I fear that its power has held back the development of improved manager capability. Because email exists as a ready means to communicate with your team, your team’s partners and customers and your boss, efforts to improve upon these have rarely been made.

Email is an interesting tool in that each time it is used it re-invents the process for getting the task done. Just as quickly as a process is established over email, that process breaks down (or fades away) as soon as the next issue or task emerges, which is all the time. The time constraints and quality criteria are usually embedded in the email communication (if at all), and generally have no enforcement. Accountability and tracking of who contributed in what way is also difficult to piece together.

Here’s an example from #7 above. Your team is getting ready for a big presentation. The script being developed gets passed around by email. Some people contribute to that document, and the new version gets passed around. Different people are brought in to give their input. The manager wants to make changes and passes it around to multiple people. Different versions of the document fall on the person needing to create the final script. That new version goes out to everyone via email. And the cycle begins again.

While it’s great that there is the speed of distribution, it is bad in that during this review cycle, new people were brought in, different versions were created, and additional reconciliation of the feedback has to take place.

Then the next time a presentation needs to be created. . . the same cycle occurs: establishment of who to involve, the expansion of contributors, and the painful reconciliation of the input takes place again. All because it is so easy to distribute something via email and respond via email.

Given this, it is possible to imagine that there could be a more structured – and efficient – way of getting this done – and without email. The manager could establish who on the team is responsible for creating the document, how it is to be shared, scope who should be the reviewers and contributors, provide a window and focused time to do that reviewing and contributing, and have a decision-making process to get differences resolved. There are better tools these days for sharing documents, but they are for the most part underutilized, or, worse, ignored.

Because we have email, we tend not to create this structure in attempting to get something done. We rely on the ability to communicate and, in turn, establish the de-facto structure to whatever the task at hand is, and we don’t necessarily to create process constraints that could create greater efficiencies, innovation, and quality improvements.

Therefore it is a tenet of the emerging field of Management Design to look at what Managers are doing over email, and determine – is there a better way of doing this? Are there tools and processes that can be established that can better manage the various outputs required of managers, rather than relying on email to establish the process (and then watch that process immediately fade away)?

What kind of management tasks do you do over email? What kind of management tasks do you do that are not over email? Which ones have a more efficient and repeatable process?

 Related Articles:

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Tenets of Management Design: Drive towards understanding reality and away from relying on perceptions

Tenets of Management Design: Identify and reward employees who do good work

Tenets of Management Design: A role in management is not an extension of performance as an individual contributor

Tenets of Management Design: Managers are created not found

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About Walter Oelwein
Walter Oelwein, CMC, CPT, helps managers become better at managing. To do this, he founded Business Performance Consulting, LLC .

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