One of the key shocker being in management and program management is the amount of time you send to manage the incoming emails everyday. There is nothing I can do about the number of email coming in, it is the nature of the job. As program manager, 90% of our job is to communicate and email is one of the ways we communicate. As an engineering manager, handling emails are our primary job as we need to calibrate the team’s performance with the larger business unit strategy, ie we need to keep in pace with how the business is going. On top of emails, meetings are a regular staple of being in a management role for the reasons above. Being an engineering manager is worse because you would have to meet with people reporting to you, where you need to prepare the conversation with them.
Part of my career path took me through being an engineering manager and program manager at the same time. I had people reporting to me as an engineering manage, at the same time I also manage a program. The nature of the work means I have to manage a lot of emails and attend meetings. I was managing the emails responses well until the group had a organisation and leadership change. The new leadership wanted to move fast so they are asking for responses and updates in hours when we used to take days to address complicated issues. Those were the times where email and meeting load was the highest in my career.
It was also at the that time where people reach out to share how we handle the workload and also keep our sanity in check. Below are the 2 principles that I use hand in hand to manage workload and emails. I find it more effective to use both at the same time as they complement each other, as I will explain below.
Touch It Once Rule
I have unconsciously been using this method without knowing that it even has a name. This principle came naturally for me one I have too many emails coming in a day that I needed to handle. It is easier to explain to people once something has a name. The best article that I feel explains the method is https://www.cnbc.com/2018/06/21/touch-it-once-method-for-tasks-can-boost-productivity.html
I heard this method was derived from the movement to keep things tidy in the house. Technically once you “touch” an item, you bring it to the final place you want it stored. Same with emails.
Once I read an email, I will do one of the things below
- Digest or ignore the emails. I normally glance through automatic notification as sometimes they will drive bigger discussions or provide leading indicator of trouble. However reading and digesting information should not take up a lot of time. If it’s a long winded email, best go to step 4 and set up an meeting.
- Reply back with information that I have at the moment. This is straight forward
- Take immediate action before going on to the next email. Copy or forward the email to someone else who has the information. This could be forwarding the email to the chair of a meeting that best discuss the situation so that it is in the agenda. Sometimes it is about filing a ticket for the team. I find this the hardest part that we have to stop the emails, maybe open up jira to update tickets etc. But it is important as part of the “touch once” principle. Once you take actions, there’s no more follow up and I am ready for the next email.
- Set up a meeting on the topic immediately. This way, you are sure to have a follow up on the topic.
If it is done correctly, there would be a few follow up emails that will be binned or flagged for future actions. The activities that I bin or flag are those that needs further thoughts and planning, something that I would bucket as Important but not Urgent. This leads to the second topic, where we prioritize our Important but not urgent work as soon as possible. This normally drives my “work” in between emails.
Important vs Urgent
I learned of this concept from 7 Habits many decades ago, where you categorize a task based on how important and urgent it is. The key is to work on the important but NOT urgent task, so that it does not get to become important and urgent (that’s where we don’t want a task to be). When I learned of the concept, I have more questions than answers.. like what do we do when everything is on fire!
I come to realize at that point in time, when things are urgent and important, there’s not much you can do but to put off the fire. This means long hours and slogging it through. At the same time, I started to work on the important but not urgent tasks. Slowly I see the things under fire start to get under control as I handle the important stuff before it gets urgent.
This method would not make sense when you are already under water and trying to stay afloat. Point is to prevent issues from getting bad ahead of time.
I did not know there’s a name for this method, but a good place to start reading would be below.
Working hand in hand with the my first principle, where I only touch a task or email once. I quickly work through the important matters ahead of time. I have heard people say this is called “preparing for the meeting” or in other way preparing for the email.
Following the principles above, I get feedback from colleagues and also my manage as someone who responds fast. This way I am not slowing down other people’s work when they come to me for a decision. I respond, or take action as soon as I can. I also got feedback that I am someone who gets the work going in a fast pace. The worse thing that could happen is someone raise an issue or concern and it sits somewhere waiting for action. If it’s something I can resolve, I will do it. Otherwise I have to leverage on others to take actions. The responsibility has to go to some one else who has the authority and knowledge to close the concern. The sooner an issue gets to the person responsible, the faster it gets resolved.
This method does not solve one of the key problems I have as a program manager, that is to follow up on issue. As I delegate the work to others, I assume that it will get taken care. Sometimes things slip under the radar and got dropped (not entirely their fault as there could be priority conflict). I have yet to find a good principle that I can use to make sure all issues are followed up at a pace that keeps up with the “touch once” method.
As part of my management learning, I was provided with professional coaching service from a 3rd party vendor. I learn in that coaching session that the key to speed and accuracy it also to have clarity of mind. This is when you are clarity of mind of yourself, your world and people around you. This clarify of mind will help you to quickly make the right decision, which sometimes looks like “gut feeling”. This will be another story for another time.