Mailinglists and Project Management

Mailinglists are quite useful as a part of daily project management. The way I use them at work is that I post rough ideas to the relevant internal mailinglist. Then my colleagues contribute with their ideas, comments and critique.

If the outcome of all the discussion is that we agree on actions and I am the one in charge to do and/or manage the implementation, then I simply group all emails in my Thunderbird inbox by the subject of the mailinglist discussion. This allows me to extract tasks from the discussions, which I store in the task tracker.

Now, I can keep track of every single issue by assigning each task to a category, giving it a priority, defining a due date, etc. Certain tasks might require some more discussion or consulting with other team members, which is done in the relevant mailinglists again – and this is where the process starts again.

In a nutshell, the approach is:

  1. Post an idea to the mailinglist.
  2. Keep the discussion going until a decision for or against actions has been reached.
  3. Extract tasks from the discussion.
  4. Discuss single tasks in the mailinglist if necessary (go to 1.)

Communication Skills

This seems to be quite simple and obvious, but in fact requires some sensitivity. The inital idea you post to the mailinglist, or the single task you want to discuss in more details, needs to be focused – otherwise you will end up with broad discussions that have no or too many results.

Then again, even a focused initial posting can lead to general questions. Either you moderate the discussion to become focused again, or you take up the raised issues because they might be critical, e.g. being a showstopper, or unclear responsibilities, or being of higher strategic importance.

As you are the one who raised the initial issue in the mailinglist, you should always feel responsible for the thread to be of value to others. Then you will automatically only post stuff which is important. On the other side, you can well invite others to help you become clear about certain problems if you got stuck.

Exchange of Information

Mailinglists are an excellent mean to distribute information within a team or even accross teams. In an ideal situation, they help to find solutions and make decisions jointly, something that fosters the support by each team member to actually implement his tasks.

The problem lies in a potential information overload, that too many people discuss too many issues in a mailinglist. The best way to avoid the overload is to apply the above mentioned communication skills.

As “overload” is also a subjective impression, it can help to learn how to quickly scan emails without reading them in details, to first spot whether they are actually of interest to me. The more subscribers are able to apply this skill, the more quality the conversation will get, as irrelevant postings will not get attention.

If in doubt, it is always better to have communication, even if too fuzzy and too much, instead of cutting it off. The question is how to canalize it in a productive way.

Other Channels

Of course, you can also apply the above said to other communication channels, e.g. forums or IRC chat. They all have their own characteristics though. A forum servers like a knowledge base automatically, similar to a mailinglist archive. Quite different compared to mailinglists, forums are not a push medium, but rather a pull medium, because you don’t get the information automatically to your email client’s inbox.

Open Company Culture

Using mailinglists as a part of project management requires an open company culture to be of benefit. This includes team members who are not afraid of telling their opinion with the risk to be challenged by others. In other words, they need to be adaptive.

In the end, being adaptive is the key of successful communication when implementing a project. Just remember that as a little baby, you were basically only able to screem. Today you can read (I asume so, because you read this blog) – and there’s always more room for the improvement of your communication skills. The main problem seems to be though, that most of us don’t remember the times when they were a baby and think that they’ve been born with ready-made communication skills 🙂

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