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Monday, September 26, 2011

Project Communications: Cutting through the noise

[Also available as a Podcast]

Who's got the Monkey?

Email is one of the primary tools on projects, and is used extensively. As a result, personnel on the project may receive literally hundreds of project emails a day each, particularly the Project Manager. All of these emails are important to the project, however we all need to be careful to ensure that messages are targeted and tagged appropriately so that:

(a) the right people are looking at the messages
(b) people are not overwhelmed
(c) tasks are not delayed (the right people are reading and taking action)
(d) things do not fall through the cracks (no monkey/too many monkeys)

(Note: The person with “the monkey (on their back)” is the responsible person for the task/item).

General guidelines

Here are some tips that I have used on numerous projects that have saved frustration and hours of wasted effort in communicating on projects. The key is to keep things simple, so they become automatic habits. Make a system difficult, and people will not use it.

(1) Have only one responsible person (he/she who has “the monkey”). Only one person should be in the "TO" line, the person responsible for actioning the email. Others who "need to know" but are not responsible for the action should be in the "CC" line.

Sometimes, you will need to have more than one "Monkey", where decisions will require input from a select group. In this case, by all means include them all in the TO: line - but make it clear what is expected of them in the email, and by when. And if different people have different tasks, highlight them early in the email, ideally in the first page, so they know to read on further. Don't leave the assignment "hooks" until the end. Most people will skim and stop reading before they get there.

(2) Make sure that people who "need to know" are CC'd. This usually includes the Project Manager(s), Team Leads, the people involved in cross-functional activities, etc. If you are CC'd, you know you do not need to take action right away, and can read at your leisure - if you need to take any action at all. As you do not have the "monkey", you are not the primary party responsible. Some topics are general awareness - you can then skim topics, vs need to know the details and read for full meaning.

(3) "Tag" emails appropriately with urgency information. If you all share the same email system on the project, there are often automated tools and rules that you can use in common, such as Exchange with Outlook. However, that is not always the case, and I have found that simple is best.

In order to help filter out reference (FYI) emails from actionable emails, you can use something like the following at the beginning of the SUBJECT line:

"A:" - Action.
"U:" - Urgent (with "!" importance flag)
"I:" - Informational
“TNT:” – Today, Not Tomorrow (all hands on deck / stop drop and roll urgency)

(4) One thread, one subject, one topic. Most mail programs have threading capability, and it makes it much easier for tracking through old emails on a topic if the subject actually relates to the content - and the subject line is maintained throughout the thread. This simple convention can literally save hours "trying to find that email back from April - or was it February?"

And it goes without saying - do not respond to topic A under Subject B. Start a new thread or respond to the correct email. Keep the threads clean, and in context.

(5) One-touch handling. If you read it - action it, or delegate it and pass it along. If you need to action it yourself but cannot do it right away, flag it in a manner that you will not lose it. I re-mark those items "unread" and it seems to be effective for me, however you may have a different style. I would caution on filing items "out of sight" as those items are likely to be forgotten unless you check those folder(s) at least once daily. (Out of sight, out of mind)

And most importantly - 
(6) Get the team to buy in early, and use the same conventions and rules on communicating. It may be a short learning curve, but well worth it, as the above tips will help streamline your communications, letting you focus on delivering your project effectively, and less time "trying to find that email" or missing deadlines because someone did not know they had a task to do.

And of course - tweak it to suit your project, but keep it simple.

Good luck with your project!

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