Mailstorms and the weight of collaborations

An interesting article in a recent BusinessWeek (The real reasons you’re working hard) got me thinking about the paradox of democracy and hierarchy in collaboration efforts. The article talks about the increasing time and stress associated with working in a global environment, under extreme time pressures, on innovative projects, etc… One reason, the article notes, is the overload of email and v’mail, and the increasing amount of time spent on communication in the new collaborative environment.

The problem, in a nutshell-to-go is this: Succeeding in today’s economy requires lightning-fast reflexes and the ability to communicate and collaborate across the globe. Coming up with innovative ideas, products, and services means getting people across different divisions and different companies to work together.

Aside from tapping the knowledge of the esteemed John Helferich (of Masterfoods USA) and Rob Cross (of U. of Virgina), the article brings up some very interesting questions regarding the role of collaboration networks in modern organizations. On the one hand, teams that cross functional, geographic, and (sometimes) organizational boundaries have now become crucial tools for organizations responding to opportunities and crises. But are these networks really worth their weight?

Technology has created the means for relatively instantaneous, costless, and place-less communication, enabling us to text-message in the dentist’s chair, teleconference on the drive to work, and email during the Late Show. But the technical infrastructure may not have been the bottleneck. And now, with it gone, the real bottlenecks are hidden under attitudes, expectations, and behaviors regarding how much individual employees should collaborate, with whom, and how.

There are, I’m sure, a long list of these attitudes, expectations, and behaviors–the culture of collaboration in organizations–which is worth exploring in its own post. Here briefly are a few examples:
1. Courtesy: You will respond promptly to any email you receive.
2. Democracy: You should keep everyone in the loop.
3. Diffused Responsibility: CC’ing someone ensures that they have read the message and, without responding, implicitly approved its content.
4. Loyalty: Everyone has time to work with everyone else, and will do so because it’s in the organization’s best interest.
And most importantly,
5. Insensitivity: Collaboration is cost-free.

But is it? There are several interesting insights about collaboration that come from network theory. First is that the number of potential links, or relationships, between nodes in the network (whether people in the organization or webpages on the web) increases exponentially with the number of nodes (n) according to the equation: n(n-1)/2. This means that as the size of teams or other collaborations grows, the number of possible links between members grows–a team of 3 has 3 relationships to manage (3(3-1)/2=3). Add a fourth to the team, and the number of individual relationships doubles to 6. A typical team of 6 has 15 relationships.

Hot Teams
To put this in perspective, let’s say you’re on a team of 6 people (counting everyone who’s contributing or making key decisions) working on a hot project due at the end of the week. On Monday, pressure is low and each person’s emailing inputs at a rate of once per day. That’s only 6 emails going out and, assuming 10 minutes to compose and send, 1 hour in total, or roughly 2% of the 48 manhours (6 people x 8 hrs) worked that day. In the interest of democracy, everyone on the team is cc’d, so those 6 emails get sent to everyone else. At the end of the day, everyone receives 5 emails (30 emails in total), which each take 5 minutes to read. Now we’re at 2.5 hrs of total time spent reading emails, or 3.5 total hours (we’re now at 7% of the workday spent writing or reading email).

The next morning, if everyone responds to 1 out of every 5 emails, then the time spent on email runs steady at 7% (or about 35 minutes a day). That sounds reasonable, even nice. So what happens if we add one more person to the team? By Friday they’re only sending 14 emails, but now receiving almost 90, and spending 9.5 hours (an hour and 20 minutes) or 17% of their time.

So let’s keep the team to 6 people and instead–as with any high performance, consensus-driven, collaborative team–assume they respond to more than just 1 of every 5 messages. What if the response rate goes up to 2 of every 5 messages? Then the time spent doubles every day, from 35 minutes on Monday (7% of the day) to 560 on Friday (117%). How many people, on a hot team, read their email once a day? If we increase to two cycles of mail per day then by Weds, people are spending 9 hrs and 20 minutes before lunch. By Friday, the team is sending itself over 750 emails per hour, receiving over 3800, and spending 2600 hours doing so… No wonder it feels so overwhelming at times.


This is one of the most basic relationships in network theory, and has countless implications. Not the least of which is that the larger the size of any collaborative effort, the more imperative to limit communications and control the culture of collaboration.

Now, of course this isn’t realistic…not even the most exalted of McKinsey partners gets that many emails in a week. But it does explain why I can be sitting on a teleconference and watch as the inbox on my screen jumps to a couple dozen new messages in less than an hour. I’d propose calling these little email dust-ups Mailstorms (in obvious homage) because they are in fact powerful, rapid whirpools sucking the time right out of your day. The usual culprit is some poor staffer assigned the task of scheduling a meeting with the 6 of us on a project, but it can also be the group’s responses to a proposed memo, or a mass invitation that a small (but now significant) number of people obliviously reply-all to. In any case, as a good citizen I’m obligated to crawl through these personally to catch if anything important (to me) is hidden amongst the verbage.

So what’s the solution? Good question. I suppose it comes down to individual self-monitoring: asking “who really needs this information” every time you add a second addressee to the email. Which in turn depends on the ability to actually make a decision alone, to take responsibility, choke the flow of information, and censor the mails. Democracy only works if we’re not given the responsiblity of participating in it all the time.

Bottom line: Collaboration only works when people already have the ability to think and work independently.

Either that, or pick up the damn phone and call someone instead.

3 thoughts on “Mailstorms and the weight of collaborations

  1. Collaboration really need skills, as you Andrew pointed out. The use of e-mail among those ‘hot teams’ can be either productive and counterproductive.
    With my colleagues we have been observing, how a global company managed to improve their telework and communication practices.
    Some (best) practices we found:
    – Using as much as possible web conferencing and audio conferencing instead of e-mail –> less misunderstandings and flame wars
    – Establishing an easy to grasp corporate policy for communication –> now people know which channel/media to use and how
    – Integrating tightly e-mail, calendar, groupware and web-conferencing IT-systems to a continuous workflow –> focus on usability issues
    – Minimising the amount of mailing lists and unnecessary system notifications by e-mail –> making e-mail personal again
    – Providing enough support and training –> Web conferencing requires (of course) IT-skills but even more communication skills
    – CEO initiating new work practices and acting as a lead user –> less resistance in the field
    (Murto, H., Ikkala-Toiviainen, L. & Ahonen, M. (2005) . eLearning, Telework and Web Conferencing Practices. Report. The Finnish Work Environment Fund. Helsinki)
    I see these corporate collaboration topics connected to personal time management skills and how a person indicates his/her availability to other members of a team. As an innovation and creativity researcher, I could not help myself commenting this topic (See:
    ent.html ). However, my view may be biased, these are cultural issues as well, the rhythm of life is really different around the globe 😉
    It would be great to hear more stories about communication practices, group creativity and/or use of time 🙂

  2. […] I have not been very systematic in my (people) networking strategies. Therefore, the article by Uzzi and Dunlap in the recent HBR was an eye-opener to me. It helped me to map my contact network and deficiencies in my networking strategies. It also brought valuable insights to my research and artefact building. I have earlier written about Technology Brokering and had interesting discussions with Andrew Hargadon. This brokering process is not always simple in a chaotic business/research world, therefore we had also discussions about teams and their time management. Techology Brokering is very much about utilising people networks as a source of new ideas. Similarly, Peter Denning wrote about Social Life of Innovation and his "Personal Foundational Practices of Innovation" may provide a functional networking strategy?! […]

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