Safer Status Emails

by DeAnna Burghart



It should have been a simple status update. A problem had been identified at the customer site about two weeks ago, and everyone already knew about it. The project manager just wanted to be thorough and keep everyone posted. His email detailed the problem again, just in case anyone had lost track of it in the last couple of weeks.

Then he launched into the specifics of the resolution. "Here are the fixes we've tried so far: ..." It was a very detailed list with lots of explanation of each item, but best to make sure the execs knew they were leaving no stone unturned.

Then he gave the results so far: "... This is obviously the optimal solution, but when we tried it, it failed ..." Of course, he explained why it failed. If he didn't explain it, they'd just call and ask for it again. Better to let them know up front.

Then the next steps: "Since these fixes haven't worked, we've decided on the following approach." Another detailed paragraph on why and what it would take.

It would be relatively easy, and the fix would be shipped on time. So the expectation: "We estimate this will take about 3 days, and expect that the fix shipment will occur on Monday, as promised."

Everything they could want to know was there. It should have been a simple status update.

The Director of Development didn't see it that way. He got as far as "fixes tried" and, thinking that an important alternate approach had been overlooked, immediately fired off an unhappy email ... by clicking "Reply All" and removing 3 of the 15 names.

The customer rep, to her credit, made it a bit further; she got all the way to "the optimal solution failed" before panicking. She had been promised a fix by next week. She needed a fix next week. The boss had to know the missed deadline wasn't her fault, before the customer found out and reacted. Her table-pounding email, copied to everyone just for her protection, was in his inbox within five minutes.

By the time the project manager's next coffee break rolled around—if it had been the kind of day that allowed coffee breaks—there were over a dozen emails in his inbox demanding answers, solutions, and accountability in an expanding vortex of panicked communication. In the chaos, no one realized that all of their questions had been answered in the original email ... granted, maybe in the sixth paragraph, but they were all there!

It should have been a simple status update.


One of the ironies of digitized communication is that it's far more permanent than paper. Dash off a hasty memo and you can shred the evidence. But once you've sent an email, it's out there. Five minutes before you realize your mistake it's already been forwarded to everyone and their brother, and probably blogged. And nine times out of ten, they never read past the first 4 sentences.

It's easy to blame the disconnects on people being too overloaded to read everything. But time pressures aside, people may also skip out of your 10-paragraph essay, overlooking your brilliant analysis and deep insights, because they get anxious and think immediate action is needed. If you're lucky, a private reply or phone call will quickly settle the matter. If you're like the rest of us, they'll hit Reply All and the rest of your afternoon will be spent ducking shrapnel and trying to smooth things over with 20 panicked people, all trading frantic emails back and forth to an ever-growing list, all because they didn't read (or process) the entire message.

But provide enough information up front to prevent the anxiety and they may stick around long enough to read the rest. Of course, if you've put the important information up front, it doesn't matter as much if they stick around to read the rest; even if they start pressing buttons, you'll know that they had the right information before they started. Even better, it forces us to consider the alternatives and solutions (or at least define the situation) before setting loose the hounds of war.

In order to fend off the maelstrom, you need to don your fedora and trench coat and learn to write like a journalist: Summarize first, provide details afterwards. A few minutes spent analyzing your message before you hit Send can save you hours—or days—by avoiding a chaotic aftermath.

Anyone who took even the most rudimentary journalism classes will recall the inverted pyramid. Instead of building up from beginning to middle to end, expecting the reader to consume it all in order, this technique puts everything newsworthy in the first paragraphs of a story. Ideal for breaking news and current events, it's called an inverted pyramid because it starts with the broadest foundations of the story and progressively drills down to the details underneath. With the important facts all in the lead, press operators can chop a story short without needing a rewrite or a consultation with the editor. Likewise, readers can stop at any point and still have the major substance of the story. Whether the inverted pyramid saved or sabotaged modern journalism depends on who you ask. But it is invaluable when time is short, attention shorter, and column inches precious. The same techniques apply when you're trying to convey critical project information to people who will probably never read past the first screen in their email window.

Learning to summarize the critical information up top isn't just for the project manager, and it's not just for problem management. It's a core career competency at every level of the project team. Ever seen management zone out halfway through your first presentation slide and never get the point? They want the point first: a business-level summary up front, with the details to follow. The meetings we all dread so much are a function of too much detail taking up too much time; attendees begin surreptitiously checking their Blackberries, and some executives may begin to question who's really cut out to lead this project. In some organizations, this is the career barrier that people struggle to overcome. Learning to identify the real point and get to it quickly can do wonders for your career, your inbox, and your weekends. All you have to do is turn your traditional storytelling mode on its head—literally. Here's how:

Put all the critical information in the first two sentences. If you can manage it, put it all in the first sentence. Journalists refer to this (awkwardly) as the 5Ws and 1 H: Who, What, When, Where, Why, How. In business practice, this will usually translate to: Who is involved, What's the impact, When and Where will it hit, Why do I care, and How should I avoid/fix/enable/support it.

In your second paragraph (your third and fourth sentences), provide relevant supporting material or arguments. For the moment, focus on the 50,000-foot view. Remember, the goal is to make sure that your reader has the relevant, critical information. It's probably not relevant or critical to detail the conversations in the last four vendor meetings. All your reader needs to know at this point is the substance of the resulting disconnects.

From here, fan out from the most important/interesting information to the least, all the while assuming that the reader will never read any further than the paragraph you're writing at that moment (so you never bury key information).

Bad: We're going to miss the beta delivery on Foo project. The code isn't coming out on time, and the testers won't be able to finish in time.

No matter what positive steps you and brilliant plans of action you have following this opener, the reader is now in an anxious (or panicked) mindset. Foo is going to die on the vine! Let's start cracking heads!

Better: The Foo testing team needs another 400 hours of capacity in order to make the beta delivery deadline at the end of the month based on the current schedule of deliveries. We would like your approval to transfer Joe, Bob, and Suzy over to the testing team for 3 weeks starting Monday, which their manager has indicated is doable; and an additional contractor we've identified would mitigate any remaining risk.

In these 2 succinct sentences, you've provided most of the critical information. If your reader hits the panic button in spite of your calm attempt to appropriate resources, you at least increase the odds that the button gets hit in the general vicinity of resource management.


The Extra Mile

While converting to an inverted pyramid style will improve almost all business communications, these strategies will take your improvements several steps further.

  1. Write in bullet points. Instead of "page, page, page" think "line, line, line." The struggle is to compress the information into enough space that the reader can digest it quickly. Think Calvin Coolidge, not Ernest Hemmingway.
  2. Put parameters around the decision. In other words, ask for what you need. "We're having trouble with late deliveries on X that are putting the deadline in jeopardy ...." If that's the only thing read, anxiety results. Contrast this approach: "We need to find some slack in the schedule for Project X. The last 3 deliveries were each 2 weeks late, and the backlog has put pressure on production and testing. Here are three alternatives ... "
  3. Always re-read. Sending an email without proofing it at least once will eventually result in embarrassment at the very least. Aside from making sure that you didn't hit Reply All instead of just Reply, a re-read will help you maintain focus in the critical first few sentences. By the time you've finished an email - especially a long one - your completed thought process may have brought new clarity to your initial focus. And if you're putting off re-reading it because you "don't have time," just imagine being on the other end. We're always far more fascinating to ourselves than to others. If you're getting impatient at the thought of reading the whole message, what are the odds that your recipients are going to bother?
  4. Write for your audience. Not everyone absorbs information the same way. Some want more details, others fewer. If your organization has ever done any personality testing as a team-building exercise, you've probably been exposed to this concept in one form or another. Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, and DISC all cover it from some angle. One of the best distillations of this concept I ever heard was from a colleague whose employer had used color-coding to represent these tendencies on people's office nameplates. "If you walked into a Green's office," he said, "you'd better be prepared with all the information about Fluffy's unfortunate accident last night, the exact steps that led to the accident, and the steps proposed to prevent it happening again. All the Yellow wants to hear is 'We're going to need another cat."

    Poor, unfortunate Fluffy aside, the moral of the story is to know your audience, and make sure you have the information they need.

    Is your executive a fast decision maker? (We won't say "hasty.") It's even more critical that all the key information is up front. Anticipate that a judgment may already be made by the second paragraph, and make sure that it's based on the most relevant information.

    Does your exec prefer to talk things through? Consider outlining the situation and suggesting a meeting or call to discuss it in detail. They're probably going to call you to discuss it anyway, so why force them to read through material that likely won't be remembered, and may be only half-digested?

    For the decision-maker that prefers to review and contribute to a plan of action before approving it, outline your situation, attach your proposed plan, and ask for their consideration and suggestions. Don't expect a rubber stamp, and don't write as if you do.

    For the one that prefers to just sign off (or not), provide the plan and supply the arguments. For example: "The situation with Project X seriously merits cancellation. My proposed ramp-down plan is attached. Here are the things that you should be aware of while reviewing it."

Things To Avoid

Being too succinct. Don't leave out critical information in the quest for brevity. It's important not to overload people with information, but it's equally important not to sandbag them (or yourself) by leaving it out. For guidance, look to your organization's favored business drivers; is your group more likely to care about customer reputation? Financials? Beating the competition? Your initial summary should include those factors, at the appropriate level of detail.

Headlining the wrong information. Emphasize the impact, request, or action needed. Put another way: focus on the solutions, not the problems. Panicked arm waving will likely be met with equally panicked responses.

Burying key information in attachments. Writing a short email and supplying a 10-page attachment just shifts the bulk instead of sifting it. If you must include an attachment, summarize the important information in your cover message, following the guidelines above. A well-considered message that includes the key decision drivers will encourage (though not guarantee) thoughtful consideration of your proposal. Cheating with something like, "We need to cancel this project, please read the attached," will raise alarm bells that may keep the attachment from even being opened.


The Inverted Pyramid In Action

Remember our supposedly simple status update? The author could have avoided a lot of trouble with a little extra thought. Consider the key information he needed to convey:

Who is involved: At first glance, it might seem like everyone, but in fact the only group involved in effecting the change are the engineers on the project and the customer representative who approved the menu of possible solutions.

What's the impact: Minimal—the fix is expected to ship on time.

When and Where will it hit: As previously promised.

Why do I care? At this point, you might begin to question why you're sending the email at all. The point, though, is to be sure that the interested parties still know what solution was finally selected, and why.

How should I avoid/fix/enable/support it: This is the kicker: No action is needed. The email is for information only.

In retrospect, then, it becomes all too obvious where our beleaguered PM invited trouble. He started off by restating a problem, when in fact the key information of the email was that a solution had been identified and all was well. Here, then, is what an inverted pyramid version of the email might have looked like:

If you're not used to this level of summary, this might feel like whitewashing or glossing over a problem, but the critical information is all there: we've selected a solution, it's not the ideal but it's expected to work, and the shipment will be delivered on time. As follow-up for those most involved with the situation, there is a 50,000-foot explanation of why one of the sub-optimal solutions was selected, and whether there is any serious impact from it. And those who crave the details can read about just what's been tried so far—but at leisure, while being assured that the situation is under control. As a happy side effect of this re-write, it quickly becomes obvious that the email doesn't have to be broadcast to the world. The customer representative needs to know, of course. The project sponsor and involved executives will probably care, just to know that it's being resolved. The engineers working on the fix should probably be copied, as a courtesy. But the rest of the project team can read the gory details in the regular project documentation, saving time and stress for them and for the project lead.

Electronic communication can be difficult on the best of days. The written word is already bereft of so many of the things that make verbal communication easier; tone, inflection, nuance—all can be lost in a misplaced comma or an ill-timed quip. But focusing on the critical information you need to convey can make up what's lost in translation. This is not to suggest that all emails, status reports and project proposals should be sterile, lifeless documents. That will virtually guarantee they never get read. But when your subject matter is already the stuff of emotion, risk, or anxiety, you're better off cutting straight to the heart of it. That way, when it's posted on the vendor's blog, at least you'll know that they read the important bits.




Related Items on ProjectConnections
Email is great, but sometimes it's just not enough. When you don't dare try to fit everything into a postage-stamp-sized space, try some of our status report templates for other ideas. Just don't forget to remind people to actually open them.






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