Tools & Technologies

Unresolved Issues with Email: Confusion in Conversation Flow, Jan 25

In one of my penultimate think pieces last year I evaluated 11 issues that people claimed were wrong with email, concluding that only two or three were actually related to the technology of email per se; the remainder were issues of bad email practice by us the people. In this post I want to consider more fully one of those fundamental technology related issues, and explore what it means for people in business project teams today.

Confusion in Conversation Flow
My list of eleven includes this contribution from John:

2. Re-edits require a new email; there are now multiple copies of the same thing in people’s Inboxes

John’s charge is indeed a problem with the technology of email. Email was designed to replace sending messages on paper with electronically delivered messages sent at great speed. Post-delivery issues of handling were left up to the individual recipient; email was not designed to re-aggregate those messages into a single overall summary once they hit the recipient’s email inbox. Each recipient is responsible for working through each of the messages, figuring out which ones convey valuable information, which ones merely re-iterate what other people have already said, and where the flow of the conversation is going. Date and time ordering of email in the inbox helps with this somewhat, but if 6 of 7 project team members respond quickly to messages about a new topic, and then a couple of days later the 7th person re-enters the conversation and works through each of the messages in sequential order, there’s going to be confusion generated.

I put John’s charge under the wider heading of confusion in conversation flow. This means that whilst modern email clients offer the ability to show related messages in a thread, that’s actually not sufficient to give a proper and natural ordering of email messages when multiple people are conversing on an issue over a multi-day or multi-week timeframe. Messages will be sent and received out of order. Some team members will respond to earlier messages in the thread, not the latest one. They’re not trying to be malicious (in most cases) … they’re trying to contribute … but since their contributions are handled via email and not a more appropriate tool, they contribute confusion in addition to whatever else they say.

So what does this creation of confusion mean for business project teams today?

  • Frustration. People in the team will get frustrated with each other because their conversation is rendered chaotic by email. The academics tell us that getting team members to have the same mind and outlook on a project is one of the most significant roadblocks to project success; continually being frustrated with others does not contribute to healthy inter-team member relations and can push people off-track from having that same mind.
  • Misunderstandings. It is very easy for people to add or remove others from specific messages in a thread, which means that everyone who received the original message is not guaranteed of seeing every resultant messages. Some people are added on; others are removed. Thus not everyone is going to have the full picture of the conversation, and if they’ve missed out on certain important messages, they’re not going to have the same view or perspective on the conversation that others will have. That leads to mis-understanding and conflict.
  • Constant Re-evaluation of Topic Fit. New messages that arrive late in the piece force each recipient to cast their mind back to where the conversation currently stands, and then to re-evaluate just where precisely in that neatly ordered representation the new message should be slotted. Email helps greatly with helping people say what they want to say when they want to say it, but it doesn’t help everyone else comprehend the import of what’s being said. They’ve got to figure out the whole thing themselves.
  • Fragmented and Time-Delayed Conversations. Whilst email is designed as a store-and-forward communication environment, which gives great power to all involved to communicate when they are ready to do so, such time delays in communication endeavors leads to fragmented conversations. You ask for feedback on something that you’re working on; it may take 3 or 4 days before you’ve heard back from everyone, by which time the issue is no longer relevant. And even if you do email others to let them know that you’re no longer looking for input, it is most likely that others will review the older messages first, thus responding anyway. You are going to get messages that you don’t need anymore (and some of the subsequent points raised may make you re-evaluate decisions that can’t be changed easily anymore, Grrr!), and others are going to waste their precious time giving input that can no longer be fruitfully used.
  • Scattered Messages. Merely looking at your Inbox isn’t going to give you a total sense of a conversation that you are involved with, because it misses all of your contributions. Where are those? In your Sent folder. The majority of email clients do not show your contributions in line with contributions of others, instead shuffling them off somewhere else.

Email means that people have to work harder to follow the flow of a conversation than they would if more conversationally correct tools or approaches were used. A discussion forum, for example, enables people to specifically insert their feedback and thoughts into the correct place in a conversation hierarchy. With email it is hit-and-miss.

Is Email Really At Fault for This?
And yet on-the-other hand, in some instances, perhaps this isn’t a problem with the technology of email; perhaps this too is a problem of us paying too much deference to written messages that convey mere conversation fragments, rather than having a conversation by email and then appointing someone to writing and summarizing an overall set of “minutes” on the discussion. Think about a meeting that you have face-to-face with a group of others. There will be a main topic (or three), and as the meeting progresses, each person will chip in their $0.02. Bob will say something, Sally will respond, Ed and Kurt will agree with Bob, Fred and Joanne will agree with Sally, and there will be an ongoing conversation (made up of people contributing “fragments”) until the various options are recognized and a conclusion is consensually agreed or leaderfully decided. What will most people take away from the meeting? A full transcript of what everyone has said? Or will someone get the task of writing up and distributing the “meeting minutes”? In most cases, it’s the latter, isn’t it? You don’t write down and keep the second-by-second conversationally interplays from a meeting for ever and a day. You have “minutes” … a one-or-two paragraph summary about what was discussed, the major points of disagreement, and the final decision of the team. Anything beyond that is mere overload and doesn’t contribute much to team and personal sanity.


Aside: This reminds me of the one of the features that I’d love to see added to email clients: the ability to drag your mouse over a set of messages to select them and then right-click and choose “summarize”. This would pop-up a post-it note style interface that would permit the user to write in their summary of those 20-40 messages. When they close the post-it note, it shows super-imposed over the collection of messages. Whenever one of the messages in that set was double-clicked in the future, for the purpose of opening it, the post-it note would open instead, although there’d be a button at the bottom of the summary note that said “open the actual email”. I think this would greatly help with sense-making in people’s email clients. And just perhaps … wouldn’t it be cool if you could share that post-it note with other people as an option … so as to contribute towards a “shared memory” of what was said in summary.

So … is the real heart of the issue that email keeps us focused on the minuature of conversation fragments, rather than a higher-level summary? Because it’s easy for us to do so, we retain a detailed blow-by-blow account of every conversation in perpetuity rather than striving to drive a higher-level analysis of historical interactions. And because most of us are email pack rats, we keep every message we’ve ever sent or received without striving for that higher-level overview and then being willing to delete the 50-100 messages that generated it.

What’s Your Experience?
What’s your experience with confused conversations by email? Is it merely an annoyance, or have you experienced times when it has had a severe impact on the success of the team or the standing of your organization in the wider community? I’d love to hear about it …

Categories: Tools & Technologies

6 replies »

  1. Hi Michael,
    Great article, capturing a lot of the pitfalls of the over-reliances on email communication(threads)by small groups. Do you believe the interrupts and frustrations are felt by email threads between 2 people? After all as you pointed out, email is a direct electronic replacement for paper based mail, which is normal addressed to individuals rather than groups.
    Perhaps integration of email into activity based collaboration – which I know I am keen to see what IBM will offer with Notes 8 will be a better way to collaborate more effectively in small groups. I am sure there are vendors working on similar things!
    An example of the frustrations you have mentioned: Recently I had two seperate email threads with virtually the same title, but with a different group of recipients in each thread; but effectively trying to track the same subject!
    But for all its frustrations and weaknesses, is there a cheaply available, easily accessible alternative?
    Email still deliveries these fundamentals:
    1) Some sort of timestamped record of events, in written/printable format.
    2) Allows for almost synchronous and asynchronous participation.
    3) All participants have an individual identity.
    4) It’s now virtually accessible from anywhere,(with electricity and phone or satellite connection), and can be presented to recipients in a variety of clients, formats and languages.
    5) A method to respond within a timeframe acceptable to current business expectations.

  2. The problems with e-mail are widely known. But so far there is no alternative that is equally ubiqitious available, easy to use and cheap to implement as e-mail.

  3. Charlie,
    Between two people the problems are much less … it was in a group situation that I was focusing my analysis.
    Thanks for the example.
    Charlie & Jeroen …
    I agree … email has a lot going for it … whilst there isn’t a widely available alternative today, it can’t be a bad thing to explore what needs to be fixed or resolved.
    And equally, within the teams that you and I are involved with, surely we have the ability to influence the people in the group to go with something else that’s better.

  4. Email collaboration re-visited (forum add-on, 9cays and Grouptivity)

    I while back I contributed a post to the messiness of email collaboration meme, Michael Sampson distilled the meme into 11 issues. I further responded with a more focused post on using email for document collaboration.
    Anyway Michael has now taken us…

  5. Unresolved Issues with Email: Confusion in Conversation Context, Jan 31

    Email is a great communication tool that is widely available, frequently used, and understood by “everyone”. It has some inherent problems, however, and leads to many more. This is one of a series of posts trying to unpack those problems,

  6. Conversation confusion via email

    Michael Sampson is talking about “Unresolved Issues with Email: Confusion in Conversation Flow.” Beyond dumping e-mail altogether, how can people make the good use of the technology in the setting of a conversation?