Executives (and their desire for control) are the cause of email overload

A group of researchers at the London-based International Power were asked by management to look into ways to reduce email overload in the company, suspecting that this might be a cause of inefficiency. The researchers quickly determined that the executives themselves were sending 56 emails per day on average.

Chris Brown, Andrew Killick, and Karen Renaud, To Reduce E-mail, Start at the Top

Instead of deploying e-mail management tools to cope with the overflow, the company took a page from lean manufacturing. It decided to treat communication as if it were an industrial process, targeting efficiency killers such as overproduction and defects (confusing, unnecessary, or ineffective messages, which often simply breed other messages). Acting on the hypothesis that a reduction in executive outflow would prompt a reduction in employee outflow, it aimed to cut the number of e-mails sent by the top team members by 20% within four months.

Despite a few misgivings (some felt the intervention intruded on their personal style), the executives underwent training to reduce their e-mail output by taking more-deliberate actions: not forwarding messages unless strictly necessary, limiting messages’ recipients, and choosing the form of communication that would most efficiently accomplish the task at hand.

And “most efficiently” in this lean approach can be thought of as “creating the smallest email cascade.” One things uncovered by the researchers is that when an executive sends out one email it spawns a torrent from those elsewhere in the company, which spreads to others, and so on. This “email contagion” means that if executives drop from 200 to 100 emails per day an 80 person company would collectively drop from 1,920 emails to 783.

Screen Shot 2013-09-06 at 10.18.24

As the image shows, this would lead to 231 work weeks saved for the company, assuming a/ employees send 40% less emails than execs, responding to an email takes 1.5 minutes, and the employees are 84% less likely to pass along or create emails than executives. These assumptions are derived from the actual results at International Power, as well.

Behind this is a moral greater than email hygiene. This should not be interpreted as just picking the right tool for the communication job at hand. This is about loosening the ties in management so that people can use the 231 work weeks squandered by executives trying to use email as a control mechanism.

Recall the story about Jeff Bezos at Amazon (see Amazon’s “two pizza” teams keep it fast and loose), when he resisted the recommendation to cross-connect various groups working on different projects on the company’s website for greater communication and gain consensus:

Alan Deutschman, Inside the Mind of Jeff Bezos

One of Bezos’s more memorable behind-the-scenes moments came during an off-site retreat, says [David] Risher. “People were saying that groups needed to communicate more. Jeff got up and said, ‘No, communication is terrible!’ ” The pronouncement shocked his managers. But Bezos pursued his idea of a decentralized, disentangled company where small groups can innovate and test their visions independently of everyone else.

My sense is that more than good email hygiene what is needed is the Bezo’s understanding that a great deal of the communication going on in business is tangling things up rather that straightening things out, which is the conventional management wisdom. Consensus kills innovation, and costs a fortune, even when done effectively.

Relevant Analyst
Stowe Boyd

Stowe Boyd

Lead analyst, future of work Gigaom Research and stoweboyd.com

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