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Paraphrase of an email I sent to a colleague

I noticed a problem with System A. I have determined that it is not caused by X. I suspect that it is being caused by Y. (since you are in charge of Y) Can you please take a look at it?

(The part in parentheses was not included in my email because this colleague knows full well he is in charge of Y... it should be understood that's why I was sending him the email)

I run into the colleague half a day later, and say, "did you look at the problem with System A yet?" and he answers, "Oh, yeah, I got your email about System A being broken but I assumed it was probably caused by X, so I was waiting for you to check on that."

Obviously my message did not get communicated. This is an all-too-common result of emails I send and is very discouraging... yet, I don't know how I could make my emails any clearer. They are always as brief, clear, and to the point as I can make them. Any suggestions? Maybe there is something inherent about the medium of email that is just not effective for these types of communications?

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Unless 'X' is more than one sentence, i think this is just somebody trying to avoid doing work :) Seriously, Jessie's answer is good, what you want them to do should be first, explanations later. Most people will not read a paragraph of explanations, they need a 1 sentence summary, if they care they will read further. –  Jay Jan 12 '11 at 18:04
    
The best approach is to meet and please as many people as you can, so that you are on the "first-name" basis with them, so that you know how they think, what they like, what color their underwear is, and what is their favorite flavor of ice cream (all right, ice cream has taken this a bit too far). –  Job Jan 12 '11 at 22:27
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It doesnt sound from your example that you are the one with the communication problem. –  GrandmasterB Jan 12 '11 at 23:16
    
I echo GrandmasterB. That guys reply to you is irresponsible and illogical. –  Ross Jan 13 '11 at 9:00
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5 Answers

up vote 17 down vote accepted

You might try reordering it so that you tell them what you want at the beginning of the e-mail.

I noticed a problem with System A that I would like you to look at. I have already looked at X and determined that is not the cause. It might be caused by Y, which is why I need your assistance. This issue is keeping So & So from doing their work, so if you could look at Y at your earliest convenince, I would really appreciate it.

Thanks!

You might try something like that.

Also, the subject line is even more important than the body sometimes. For this e-mail, I would make the subject say:

Subject: Having issue with System A, please check Y

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I think you are on the right track, but you can reword it further, so what you're asking them to do is the very first thing. 'Please check if Y is causing this issue in System A', both subject and body. –  Jay Jan 12 '11 at 18:03
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It shouldn't be an email.

It should go into your tracking system:

  • The case entry is the fault report.
  • Initially assigned to you and with the first response to note that it isn't a consequence of X because you've checked (with any additional information to support this conclusion).
  • Its then assigned to you colleague with a note that you suspect it might be Y

At this point it should be fairly clear that its his problem...


Edit:

Actually this is, in some respects, a poor answer to the question because it doesn't - but the point it makes is valid i.e. that just sending an email without (to quote the sales term) a specific "call to action" i.e. something that makes it clear that its now the recipients problem to deal with.

In the case of an email - you could start with something along the lines "Could you take a look at the following problem..." but better to have it explicitly flagged as a task over and above the text of the message

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We get too worried about using email when the solution is, we shouldn't be. Great answer. My first reaction was, this is so obvious, but we just don't get it. –  JeffO Jan 13 '11 at 0:32
    
Though I agree, this doe snot directly answer the question, it does make a clear historical view of what is going on. In the end, you cannot do their work and yours, so if the thing falls apart because they keep avoiding their work then you would have done your part with proof to back it up. Personally I hate this "ass covering" approach but when faced with a heavy passive aggressive stance from co-workers I found it's the only way to go. Sometimes what a team needs to wake up is a good kick in the balls from a failed project, provided, of course, they actually see the failure !! –  Newtopian Apr 20 '11 at 2:42
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Don't take this rant personally, I'm guilty as well.

This is what I hate about email usage. This should be sent as a Task/Todo which ever your email system calls it. With a due date. Maybe there is some company cultural issue about sending a task because it does not come across as asking nicely, but more like giving an order. That should't be the case because the receiver can reject the request (Which would have been a plus in your case.) and establish a different time.

Meeting requests are calendar item. This is especially painful when someone asks if you can have a meeting and they give no time-frame and is a kick in the stomach when they have access to may calendar.

After 3-4 back and forth one sentance emails, it's time to pick up the phone or at least get a chat. That also goes for the 47 paragraph explanation of something I have no need to have archived in text.

Speaking of archiving. Why do I get emails about a client that only go into 'my' Inbox? When I leave the company, someone may want this and they aren't going to get my inbox. I could forward it to the person that 'may' take over my account when I'm gone. So now I have to copy the email to some document system or be like everyone else and have 50 folders in may email one for each client and drag it into there. And when I'm gone, some poor sucker gets to go through all those folders and keep receiving the spam sent to my old email address (Honestly, I did not go to that porn site.).

When an email from BigBoss@OurMostImportantClient.com, it needs to go to some central location for anyone who needs to get at it now or in the future can get it. If it's direct to MyBigBoss, then maybe not. But it should have the capability to route important client and business partner email.

Wiki's and SharePoint and the vertical market applications that incorporate contactg management are nice, but they don't handle email. Someone has to clean up this mess until we get rid of it.

Sorry, the answer to your question is in there somewhere. Just like our email system.

There has got to be a better way and it sure as hell ain't Twitter.

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  • Keep your message short and succinct.
  • Favor bulleted lists over paragraph-style prose.
  • Know your recipients (i.e. avoid technical jargon when speaking to non-programmers).
  • Use email sparingly.
    • If you over-communicate, people will tune you out.
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Handling your specific example through your bug-tracking mechanism of choice is, as others have said, probably the better solution. That said, your broader question about email communication deserves a closer look.

  • Given that your emails are as clear as you claim (and I have no reason to doubt that based on your very clearly expressed question here)
  • And Given that people both acknowledge receiving and reading said emails
  • And Given that this isn't an isolated or rare occurrance
  • Then I doubt that the problem is the clarity of your emails.

You seem to suspect as much when you ask "Maybe there is something inherent about the medium of email that is just not effective for these types of communications?" But I doubt you'll have success in any other medium. I suspect that the source of your frustration is more likely based in your relationship with your team.

It looks to me like the people on your team aren't taking you seriously and that's a broader problem than can be addressed with a change of medium or communication style. If you want your communication to be taken seriously, then you need to get at the reasons why you aren't being taken seriously and remediate them. There are a lot of possible factors that can be at the heart of this lack of respect (you're new, or young, or culturally different, or unproven, or have been wrong in the past) and each one would indicate a different approach to remediation. And different teams respond differently to different personality types. So without knowing more details, I hesitate to give advice in how to move forward from here.

If this were a prison movie, I'd suggest that you find the biggest guy on the team and jump him. Getting the respect of a team of programmers can be more difficult (though generally there is a lower chance of ending up in the hospital).

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