Joel T. Sanders
Replace Email with Proactive Workflows
Updated: Sep 28, 2020
Email is the primary way knowledge workers manage workflow. And it's complete insanity.
When working from an email inbox, you see hundreds of fragments of projects, in no particular order, all in one big pile.
It's like figuring out how to build a house by sorting through a giant pile of nails, wood, piping, concrete and wires, all jumbled together. Just as you pull out the materials you need for the bathroom, a truck dumps roof tiles on top.
That's most businesses: piles of jumbled work. Each pile has an overseer, and there's lots shouting back and forth about who has what in which pile.
Your clients are doing the same thing. They're overseeing their own pile of garbled incoming messages. When you send them your email communications, you are the truck dumping stuff onto their pile.
Somehow, miraculously, this system keeps the economy rolling along, producing everything from computers to tax returns. But it also leaves us stressed, sleep-deprived, and scattered.
Those Who Control Attention Win
Success in the knowledge economy comes from managing attention. And the bottom line is: those who control attention, win.
Marketing that grabs and holds attention wins. A sales pitch that grabs and holds attention wins.
And a business that focuses each team member's (and client's) attention on the right projects, in the right order, and for the right amount of time, wins.
That's why using email as a primary means of managing attention is a losing proposition. It's too fragmented and jumbled up. Does it have a role? Absolutely. But that role should be ancillary, not primary.
The stress of working this way can't be overstated. "Did so-and-so get that done?" keeps too many business owners and executives awake at night. In fact, the whole team suffers. Mistakes are inevitable when focus is fragmented into dozens of unordered messages.
From Email to Proactive Workflows
Email is a reactive workflow: stressed, fragmented minds reacting to other stressed, fragmented minds in ping-pong communications.
What you need are what I call proactive workflows. Proactive workflows are systems and processes that coordinate the efforts of clients and team members on the highest-priority tasks week after week.
Doing this is extremely difficult to get right. In the short-term, you add process steps and tools that put more on your plate without an immediate payoff. You have to continue operating with your current insanity to get work done while the new systems are created.
As you tinker and experiment, some things work and some don't. It can feel like a waste of time trying out a procedure only to throw it away and try something else.
Like starting a new diet or exercise routine, you need to resist the temptation to throw in the towel too soon. In future articles, I'll share what's working and what isn't with my own clients.
In the meantime, here are a few ideas to consider with your own business operations:
Your email inbox probably holds the key to sanity. It may seem paradoxical, but the information in your email inbox probably holds the clues to reorganizing workflows. You just need to get the fragments of information out of email and into other places, formatted for each specific audience. This might include checklists, workbooks, documents, spreadsheets, and meeting agendas.
Use tools you and others already know. I highly recommend figuring out how to solve your workflow problems with tools everyone already knows how to use. Lightweight tools like Google Docs, Google Sheets, and, yes, in some cases, well-structured emails, are better than complex tools that nobody will use. Don't get seduced by SAAS tools that promise to solve all of your workflow problems. If it requires more than 20 minutes of learning for the least technical person in your office, forget it.
Get more done in meetings. Eliminate the back and forth of email communications by discussing multiple items in one fell swoop in a meeting. Whenever I'm about to send an email to someone, I ask, "can this wait until our next meeting?" If it can, it goes onto a list of items for discussion with that person.
Your systems for managing attention should be congruent. Different audiences have different attention requirements, e.g., your clients versus your team. This requires that you maintain, and check things off of, multiple lists in different systems, and provide status updates in different ways to different audiences. But all systems should still align. Going from team updates to client updates should be a snap. This often means doing things more methodically, which on the surface, can appear slower. But in reality, you're moving faster: your brain just isn't jumping back and forth among dozens of things throughout the day.
When it must be an email, send one instead of many. I'm a big fan of weekly emails with batched tasks in lieu of multiple emails for single tasks. One of my clients, who writes blog posts for other companies, began grouping articles into a single weekly batch for approval. Before, each article approval was a separate email. The new weekly email helps her clients carve out a single time block for article approvals instead of three or four time blocks for individual articles scattered throughout the week. They also now only reply to the one email with comments and feedback. As a whole, this batch process is saving my client and her clients hundreds of additional emails per year.
So there you have it: a few simple ideas for getting out from under email tyranny. The good news is that you already have all of the fundamental skills you need to do this work: just look at the clutter, and figure out how to organize it better.
It takes discipline and effort, but the payoff is clarity, confidence, and a bit of sanity.