Never use email for project management. Email increases stress, creates unnecessary work, and makes people feel overwhelmed. No one does exceptional work under these conditions. The last few years, productivity enthusiasts have pushed knowledge workers to get off of email, or at least to ditch internal company email. An excellent way shift away from email is to all but ban it from project work and move that communication to a project management service instead.
Project management services are online tools that teams use to track their work on projects, discuss the details, and complete the job. Users can use a project management tool simultaneously or asynchronously. Every tool is a little different, but most of them give users greater visibility into every aspect of the project than email can.
In the previous two installments of Get Organized, I covered how to get started managing a project and how to improve communication in project management. But I haven’t talked about why and how email specifically derails projects. That’s because it’s such an important point that it warrants its own column.
What Constitutes a Project?
Before you can get rid of the email surrounding projects, you have to understand what a project is. A project is a job or series of jobs with a clear end date and deliverables.
In other words, a project ends. And it ends when you give something to someone, whether it’s the final plans for a new widget or a completed annual report. Other types of work aren’t projects, because they are ongoing or they might not have a final product. A clear example of a project is a website redesign. Sure, a new website might need continuing maintenance, but designing and building the site is a project that ends when the site is approved and launched. Updating that same website every day isn’t a project, because that’s a never-ending job.
Typically, and especially in the workplace, projects also involve collaboration. It’s possible that someone might work solo on a project, but usually one person requests a project and another person or group of people build and deliver it. Depending on the size of the project, there might also be a separate person funding the project and yet another person dedicated to managing it.
Email Derails Projects
How does email derail projects? Projects usually comprise a series of tasks. A project manager is the person who knows what all those tasks are, but other people will be the ones completing the tasks. So a project manager needs to dole out the work to the right people and then keep an eye on it and them until it’s done.
Email is electronic mail. That obvious fact is one few people step back to reflect on when they’re in the thick of work. Mail is a horrible avenue for assigning work, be it electronic or postal. The idea of getting assignments by snail mail seems almost ridiculously backwards. But email is basically just faster snail mail. It represents an speed improvement over the older technology, but not really a paradigm shift.
Think about what email is good at providing: asynchronous communication with a paper trail, and document delivery.
Now think about what’s needed for assigning and tracking tasks: knowing who’s available and how much work they already have on their plate, moment to moment; visibility into the progress of the work; a calendar of deadlines; the ability to prioritize and reprioritize tasks based on the needs of the project; and so forth. You would laugh at the idea of managing those tasks via snail mail; email is just as laughable, if a bit faster.
More importantly, the way most office workers use email creates interruptions. When new email messages arrive with dings or pop-up notifications, workers typically check to make sure that the incoming message is not urgent. Then they get back to what we were doing until the next interruption. People do this all day long, checking and scanning their email. Several studies show using email takes up around 30 percent of a knowledge worker’s day, but it’s spread fairly evenly throughout the day, rather than being in discrete chunks.
Does that mean email slows things down? Actually, counter to what you might expect, there’s good support from research that interruptions actually make us work faster (e.g., Mark 2008, Zijlstra 1999), not slower. Interruptions take their toll in a different way.
The problem is that people who are interrupted have a higher workload and more stress, feel greater frustration and time pressure, and put in more effort. So interruptions often do have a net negative effect, if not in the way people tend to assume.
Furthermore, even if the task at hand gets done in the same amount of time or less, working in this way still wastes time in the long run. We lose time when we have to reread the same email we scanned earlier in the day because we’ve forgotten what it said. If you forget what the date is for a key deliverable, digging it out of your email takes time. And what if the email you dig up is an old one, and the date has since moved forward a week?
This is all to say that email wasn’t designed for managing tasks. It’s the wrong tool for that job.
Communicating in a Project Management Platform
Project management involves juggling people and resources, keeping a watchful eye on time, and redistributing or reprioritizing tasks as the situation changes. Project management services were designed to handle just those kinds of issues and others that commonly crop up during the course of a project.
What’s it like to communicate in a project management service? Using a project management tool versus using email to manage a project is like the difference between seeing the leaning tower of Pisa in person and reading a description of it. In the first scenario, you have total control over what you want to see and when you want to see it. In the second, you’re relying on other people to type out messages telling you what they think is most important—or, worse, what they think you want to hear.
Project management platforms give workers many options for communication, depending on what needs to be conveyed. For example, I like a project management tool that has instant messaging included (Zoho Projects has it, as does Proofhub at the $99 tier of service). If a colleague needs to ask me a question that’s urgent but quick, instant messaging is the way to go.
Let’s say the project in question has a lot of visual elements, and the team working on it needs to discuss them. Some project management platforms have built-in PDF and image markup tools (e.g., Volerro, Clarizen) that let users electronically scribble on an image and attach comments, making it easier for everyone to both give and understand feedback.
All the basic stuff that needs to be juggled and tracked is logged in the project management system and visible to those who need to see it. Instead of wading through email threads looking for information about who is doing what, project management tools display those details neatly. There’s no need to cc half a dozen people on email threads just in case they one day may need to reference the information contained in them. Comments about different phases of work can be attached to the tasks or series of tasks to which they relate. A lot of the stuff that requires you to read between the lines when using email for task-management suddenly becomes crystal clear when you use a project management platform.
Less Email Means More Work
The benefits of getting a team off email and into a project management platform to communicate during the course of a project are enormous. The reduction in email alone is sure to make everyone happy, but that pales in comparison with the added value of having greater visibility into who is doing what, what else are they doing, and the status of every task. It makes it much easier to have accurate information on hand throughout a project so that the decision makers can make good decisions.
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Article source: http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2499696,00.asp
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