7 Tips for Effective Email

Some tips for making better use of email at work and in personal life

  1. Realize that busy people may skim your email instead of reading it thoroughly, especially if they notice that they are among one of multiple recipients of the email.
    • When speaking to a specific person or people in the email body, highlight their name using bold, italics or color so that they notice it.
  2. When you send an email to multiple people asking for a response or assigning a task, specify by name in the body text who you are asking for a response or action from. Otherwise people may read your email and assume one of the others will act on it.
  3. When sending a very short message via email, put it all in the subject line and put EOM at the end of the subject line. EOM is a special convention and abbreviation for End of Message signaling that the body text of the email is empty and can be skipped.1
  4. Avoid using the bcc feature in a sneaky way to tell someone else (e.g. the main recipient’s boss) only your side of the story without telling the known recipients.
  5. At a workplace, when you send announcements (i.e. when your goal is for you to disseminate information and not to start a discussion), send the message in a way that recipients do not reply-all.
    • You can do that by either using a mailing list that only authorized people can send mail to, or by putting the actual recipients in bcc: field and using a placeholder address in the to: field. That is a legitimate use of bcc:. You could also request in your message that recipients do not reply-all to this message and instead for example, report issues to an alternate address.
    • Managers sometimes cringe when after they send a positive message to a large number of people, one of the recipients replies-all with a negative message that either diminishes or distracts discussion away from the original positive message. An employee who does reply-all to a positive message with a negative one is being foolish or a jerk (usually both). You should avoid giving such people a pulpit and opportunity to lower others’ morale and/or start a flame war. (When you have such employees who don’t stop doing this after being told, fire them and hope they get employed by your competitor.)
    • If you are the recipient of an announcement, do not do a reply-all, unless you have a relevant, positive message to add that adds value to and strengthens the original message.
    • I am not suggesting that you don’t voice your disagreements, corrections, cautions, constructive criticism and other comments. You should express them, but not via reply-all. Communicate them to the appropriate person(s) only, typically that would be the sender of the announcement or your supervisor. If you find an error in someone’s announcement, give the sender the courtesy of an opportunity to send out a correction by letting them know first.
  6. Give people reasonable time to respond to your email, even if they have mobile devices (like BlackBerry or other email enabled phones).
    • Realize that some people are overwhelmed by email and you should occasionally reach out to them in person or via phone for certain important matters. Email is not a replacement for all personal communication.
  7. Avoid checking your email on a mobile device when interacting with other people in person except when absolutely necessary, for example in a meeting. It is rude and it implies you are not focusing on your job in the meeting.
    • If your job requires you to be on alert for certain messages, set up alerts via mail filters that will sound or vibrate the device to inform you of messages that require you to interrupt your current activity.

Further Reading

Please read, follow and share these tips about using email effectively:

  1. article on LifeHacker: How “EOM” Makes Your Email More Efficient  []

Project Management: Time to Market, People & Teamwork

Starting early, not driving recklessly fast

People who have worked with me are familiar with my trait of challenging the team to bring products and solutions to market as soon as possible. I’m a strong proponent for quickness to market and love to deliver sooner than the initially projected timeline. In this article, however, I present a different viewpoint for balance.

In product development, the question often comes up: How can we be quicker and faster to market with our products? We should ask instead: How can we be earlier to market with our products than our competitors? We should also ask: Is it more important to be early, or to deliver good quality and innovation?

For the medium and long term good of your organization and in the best interest of your customers, it is more important to deliver a high quality and innovative product than to deliver it quicker.

In most cases, successful companies are not the ones who are fast or early to deliver products, but those that deliver better products.

Take Google for example. They were a couple of years late to the Web search engine market and were reinventing a product that had already been established by others. Many thought the search engine market was already saturated. Remember some of the early ones like Infoseek, Lycos? Where are they now? Consider Microsoft and Apple: most of their products are not early, but they often succeed. The iPod came years after the early portable digital audio players. MySpace.com came up to dominate online social networking a couple of years after Friendster, Tribe and Orkut were already established.

Even when analyzing products whose success was due their being early to market, we find that early does not imply fast. These projects often started early and were executed at a comfortable, smooth pace.

As the saying goes, when you ask for quick and dirty, you get both. The benefits of speed to market are for the short term. In some cases, it does make sense to go for quick, short-term solutions. In all cases, however, one must give serious thought to whether that’s the correct path to choose considering the medium and long term goals.

People & Teamwork

In projects, working fast is often a recipe for failure, especially after starting late. The overwhelming majority of projects are not like 100 meter races, where speed results in victory. They are like football games, where factors like teamwork have much greater influence on winning.

The greatest factor affecting the success of projects is not speed, not technology, not even process or planning. It is people. Invest your time, energy and resources on your people and they will make your projects succeed more than anything else.

Whether you are a leader, manager or information worker, I recommend learning more about the people factor and practicing better people related activities at work. Here is a quote I like from a book: “People under time pressure don’t work better; they just work faster. In order to work faster, they may have to sacrifice the quality of the product and their own job satisfaction.” — Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, 2nd Edition, Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister

Keep in mind this order of descending significance of factors in projects’ success:

  1. People & teamwork
  2. Priorities
  3. Planning
  4. Process & operations
  5. Products & technologies
  6. Pace & acceleration

Technology, Innovation and Business Decisions

Nowadays, it is becoming fashionable to belittle technology. I hear people say things like “technologies should not drive business decisions“, “define your requirements without worrying about technology and ask technology [people] to deliver them“. May sound logical at first, but is it? Consider this imaginary conversation between Bill, a technologist and Plato, a Platonist businessperson.

Bill: How do you commute to work?
Plato: I drive.
Bill: Why don’t you fly or teleport?
Plato: What do you mean?
Bill: Why do you use a car that drives on the road, why not a personal flying machine or a teleporter?
Plato: Because they aren’t invented yet.

Defining business needs without consideration of technology is impractical. It is being quixotic and ignoring the current reality. Leave the dreaming for the innovators since they and businesspeople are usually different people.

Think about ten important inventions that changed the world. How many of them were created with a business plan? How do you think the wheel was invented? How was fire discovered? Did someone create this World Wide Web with a business plan? Many important things were created with a business plan. The point here is not that business is unimportant, but that technology is important on its own merit.

Sound business practices have an important place in this world. Technology and innovation have a place in this world. One is not master to the other.

Craigslist & eBay: Community sites founded by programmers

Great businesses are often started by people without a formal business background but with passion, vision and the ability to execute.

Neither Craigslist nor [founder and chairman Craig] Newmark benefits financially from the deal. EBay and Craigslist both were started in 1995 by pocket-protector-type programmers; each became wildly successful in its own way, attracting fervent communities of people who wanted to make a deal of one sort or another.

Over the years, Newmark has turned down numerous offers to sell all or part of Craigslist to outside investors. In a posting on his Web log, Newmark said the sale to EBay was conducted by a former employee to whom he had given some equity “with the idea of establishing checks and balances, mostly on myself.”

Over two months of meetings, EBay assured Newmark and Buckmaster [Craigslist CEO] it would not pursue the deal unless they were happy about it, Buckmaster said. Both men said they felt that EBay CEO Meg Whitman and founder Pierre Omidyar “showed that they were interested in us for all the right reasons,” as Newmark put it on his blog.”Once we knew this equity interest was likely to change hands, we can’t imagine a better outcome than the one we’ve gotten here,” Buckmaster said.

Full story in the San Francisco Chronicle:

What is Leadership?

Victory is not defeating others. Victory is winning others.

The three skills that people in an organization have are leading, managing, and working. Every person has a combination of all three. I refer to a leader as someone who is strongest in leadership, a manager as one who is strongest in management and a worker as one who is strongest in workmanship.

To understand better what leadership is, let us first discuss it in the context of what leadership is not.

Leadership is not equivalent to managing others. A leader manages him/her self while teaching and guiding people to manage themselves and others.

Leadership is different from management in several aspects. While a person can be a good leader as well as a good manager, the two are two different talents. A President & CEO needs to be both a leader and a manager. The Chief Architect can just be a leader. A Project Manager can be just a manager. A programmer can just be a worker. A manager often needs to make others do things, but rarely needs to do those things her/himself. This does not imply that a manager’s role is less significant. The manager does the important work of making the workers successfully do their work.

A manager does not need to be an innovator, but a leader needs to be. A manager follows the rules and makes workers follow the rules. A manager is most effective when things are going according to plan. A leader on the other hand, is equally effective when things are going according to plan or not. A leader rewrites the rules when necessary. A leader guides the manager in coming up with a new plan when needed. A leader often realizes it even before a new plan is needed. A leader is a visionary. A leader imagines great things. The leader formulates a high level plan. The manager creates a detailed plan from that and manages workers to implement using that plan.

To be a leader does not mean being a high and mighty boss. A leader is a servant as much as a commander. A good leader cares about others. A leader must lead others to success. If a leader’s goal was to achieve success only for one’s own self, then I’d call him or her a climber, for one who climbs to success, but not a leader. A leader who does not benefit others serves no purpose in an organization or in society.

Being a leader sometimes requires sacrificing ones own interests for the good of others.

Contrary to some beliefs, a leader should be generally popular and liked. A leader does not do just what the leader thinks is best for others, but what the team decides is best for the team. A leader provides results and enlightenment (as in understanding of those results). If people consistently do not understand what or why the leader is doing, the leader needs to be replaced. A leader realizes that people are intelligent and gives them appropriate credit.

A leader is not merely a teacher. A leader is a student and an instructor.

Leadership is not easy. It is not for everyone. Can anyone become a good leader? Yes. Should everyone become a leader? No. (As an illustration consider the question: Should everyone become a carpenter? No.)

(Note: In his career, the author has been successful and won awards while working at various levels of Programmer, Manager, Regional Director, Vice President and External Consultant. The knowledge presented here is compiled from those experiences and by learning from others. The author does not claim these ideas as original.)