The E-Mail Iron Triangle

In traditional project management the axes of success are usually denoted as cost, scope, and schedule.  This is often known as the 'iron triangle' as it was once believed that if one thought about it long enough (and estimated accordingly), each of these 3 axes could be fixed.  These days most sane projects are executed with an understanding that, at most, 2 axes can be fixed. 

The farther that communication is removed from face-to-face interaction the less effective that communication is.  For numerous reasons, face-to-face is better than telephone; telephone is better than texting; texting is better than email.  Co-locate where possible!  Yet, due to geographical distribution of companies, their teams, and their customers the need for this type of communication is unavoidable.  The cost of that decrease in effectiveness is rarely taken into account at the project level.  Let's consider the concept of the 'iron triangle' in the context of the use and proliferation of email communication on projects:

Scope

As projects progress, people are involved in communicating via email at different frequencies and urgencies and for different purposes.  These email volumes (some portion of the scope of our work) are always underestimated and perhaps most puzzlingly, are not considered by some to be actual 'work'; they're considered something separate.  In the Creative Economy of knowledge work,  email is unfortunately a huge part of the work.  Solving problems requires collaboration and the exchange of ideas and if we choose to have these conversations asyncronously (for whatever reason) through email then we must accept that we are working at an often reduced velocity.  In order to maintain a level of thoughtfulness in engaging in these asyncronous conversations, we each have a volume threshold beyond which the quality and timeliness of our responses will suffer.

Cost

The cost of 'keeping up' with the ever increasing volumes of email usually results in:

  • a decline in the quality / timeliness of the work,
  • an increase in the stress of the people involved,
  • the realization that the work needs to be subdivided and additional people involved, or
  • the realization that less people need to be involved in the work

As email volumes increase unhindered, the cost can only increase.

Schedule

As email volume increases, the ability to respond meaningfully in a timely manner decreases.  This leads to people trying to multi-task by responding to emails amidst other communication mechanisms like meetings/ teleconferences. This in turn reduces the quality of at least one and likely all of those communication mechanisms.  Often an illusion of responding in a timely manner only creates churn due to incomplete answers or incompletely thought through responses.  People need time to communicate effectively.

 

So if scope increases beyond a threshold, cost and/or schedule will increase.  Most people have exceeded their threshold. That threshold can only be avoided by taking a hard loo at working communication agreements, communication conventions, and individual systems tailored to each person's working style.  Until these true costs are effectively considered on projects, the E-Mail Iron Triangle will remain fixed along all three axes and people, teams and organizations will continue to suffer the consequences.

How can you tell if your threshold for email has been exceeded?  Some symptoms are:

  • feeling the need to respond to email while doing something else
  • having to respond to an email multiple times because you didn't give it the time it deserved initially
  • hearing yourself say on any given day "I haven't caught up to my emails from yesterday yet"
  • feeling like you may have missed an email, but you're not sure because you have so many (unread or read) cluttering your inbox.

If you've experienced these symptoms,  you, your team, and your organization probably need to examine which two axes of the email iron triangle you want to anchor and which you're prepared to let float.