Group Emails: Collaboration or Chaos?

Illustration of multiple hands raised holding envelopes

With the written word, the stakes are already high, but when professional and not so professional opinions are injected in a group email setting and deconstructed by opposing views, emotions can skyrocket. Part documentation, part subtext that is open to interpretation, if used without caution, group email is the worst of both worlds. Without the benefit of face to face, tone, and body language that facilitates more human communication in a traditional meeting setting, committee decisions via email can impose fragile egos, counterproductive second-guessing, and more teams in the semantics of who said what before versus what to do next. With group emails, communication is a more open forum and more like inviting a chorus of opinion otherwise known as the “reply to all” button. The premise of including multiple people on email communication is indeed noble. Whether it’s informing the team of progress, seeking constructive input, or preventing duplication of effort, developing a unified approach and rallying the troops towards a common goal is the definition of collaboration…but it doesn’t always work out that way. In fact, depending on the group of participants or how controversial the subject matter, group email collaboration can turn into a 20 message diatribe that wastes time, saps resources and energy, and even hampers positive relationships. But is there a better way?

Online collaboration tools such as Skype for business are the ideal venue for brainstorming, constructive whiteboard strategizing, and from an IT support standpoint, drawing up service desk workflows. It’s a controlled environment in which the meeting organizer can set contributor status of all attendees, a combined vision channeled onto one shared screen. Consensus can even be built with a polling feature so everyone has a say in the decision process without going off topic. When collaborating on documents, especially ones that may be distributed companywide or customer facing, SharePoint is another tool that streamlines joint efforts because it enforces an approval process on any suggested edits and promotes version control. While workflow notifications and pending task assignments are delivered via email, approval parameters prevent unauthorized release or publication.

On the other hand, organizations that don’t have the luxury of SharePoint or other collaboration tools are understandably relegated to following that less formal group email collaboration process. If so there are still parameters to live by that enable constructive dialogue. The first step in team communication is sorting out the contributors or those prompted to respond from the audience. In an email context, anyone who merely needs to be informed of progress should either be selectively included in group emails or cc’d. Otherwise, they may incorrectly conclude that their input is being expressly sought. So anyone eager to make a good impression yet may not be privy to the full context of the discussion may inadvertently sidetrack the dialogue. Unless the audience members need regular status updates, it’s best to involve them in the dialogue on a need to know basis via separate emails. Using a documentation example, one way to eliminate the risk of those prone to sending clients and prospects works in progress or deliver unapproved messages is to omit the trigger-happy from the group email loop until such written content has gotten the stamp of approval.

From a business process standpoint, this separation of roles is distinguished further as those Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed, otherwise known as the RACI matrix. Whether it’s a proactive goal to achieve or reactive issue to be resolved, organizations must establish who the Responsible party is, before that person engages in any email communication about next steps. Once the roles are established, the person responsible should remove the ambiguity by emailing the team involved a detailed project plan or a list of tasks and deadlines and those accountable to seeing the work through to completion. Any subsequent group email should be focused on holding key personnel accountable to tasks and deadlines using clearly documented directives so there is no room for misinterpretation.  Like the hub of a wheel, the elected Responsible person should seek input separately on the Subject Matter Expert (i.e. Consulted) for each decision or the person Accountable for each subtask. They should then compile that input and check it off the project plan, before relaying it to the next spoke on the wheel via a separate email. Any status updates emailed to members of the “Informed” list should be done in announcement format containing no questions, implying no open issues remain. Even for those invited to contribute their two cents, the email should direct them to read the entire chain of messages versus respond to the last thing they saw a written. Without clear context of the entirety of the discussion, approaches that have been discussed and eliminated, strategies that have been accepted by the rest of the team, may be reintroduced to the debate. Then as key milestones in the process are reached, the person responsible should indeed inform the team until the project is completed or the targeted goal attained. At that point, no matter how long and involved the collaborative process, the final group email is one the team will likely get behind and may even be relieved to put behind them.