Agile antipattern: Using email as the primary communication tool

Can I just be short and to the point for this one?  I hope so, because that is my intention!

Email is LOW BANDWIDTH communication

Agile teams REQUIRE HIGH BANDWIDTH communication

Do you see a problem?

Agile teams need to communicate in real-time whenever possible.  Even the agile manifesto says “individuals and iteractions over …”  In other words, one of the primary things about agile is people interacting with each other!  Email is not an interaction.  It is one way communication because we don’t know when we’ll get a response.  We don’t know IF we’ll get a response.  In fact, in almost all cases we don’t even know if the intended recipient even received the message!

Don’t fall into the trap of believing email is real-time communication.  A team relying on email will pay the price by having misunderstandings which lead to later corrections, and even worse, they will usually miss their commitments.

Until next time I’ll be continuing to tell people to use email “ONLY when the answer isn’t important for the next 4 days” because anything less isn’t going to be Making Agile a Reality™.

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  1. I agree, and you can also break high & low bandwidth into unidirectional & bidirectional activities.

    Documents & Email lean towards unidirectional whereas Video Conf & Phone Calls lean towards bidirectional.

    If you want to send out Reports or Memos then Email is fine, but not so much for anything else 🙂

    • David, I absolutely agree. There are many variations on this theme. High/low bandwidth and uni/bidirectional is a great starting point though. In a future blog post I’ll probably talk about my feelings on IM because I’ve seen lots of different interpretations about how applicable it is on agile teams.

      – Bob –

  2. ….I agree! Don’t you hate it when someone emails you and you can actually see them sitting at their desk?

    I don’t think that it is always bad though. Sometimes I find it really helpful to put my thoughts down in a structured manner in an email. It helps get my head around my concerns and also generally leads to a structured response.

    • Adam, I agree. Don’t take me the wrong way – I use email – A LOT! I just don’t use it as a primary method of communication for an agile team. I use it for things where there is no real urgency or there simply is no other way to reach the other person.

      Email itself isn’t bad – the misuse of email is what’s bad!

      Oh, hey Adam. Sorry, I didn’t know you were at the next desk over 🙂 Only kidding.

      – Bob –

  3. I mostly agree with you. plus among the bunch of mails we can receive in a day, only few really bring value.
    Nevertheless, I think email can be a good agile tool when it’s not used alone. For instance, assuming a question will need a bit of investigation, the email can be the first shot, giving the recipient some time to think about it. Then a phone call, IM or so to be used both as a reminder and the opportunity to bring more details about the question, context…

    Cedric.

    • Cedric, in my opinion you are very close to a line which can be dangerous. By saying “the email can be the first shot, giving the recipient some time to think about it” you are making the assumption the recipient received the message. Unfortunately, that is not a valid assumption much of the time and we fall into the trap of believing something is “moving forward” when in reality it isn’t. This is why using email as a primary communication tool fails. If you follow up the email by calling the person and saying “I just sent you an email about this so you have time to process it before we speak again” then you have a valid use of email.

      – Bob –

  4. OK, so.. what should we use? I loved what google showed us with their new project “Wave”. But untill we all are able to use it, what should we use?

    I love IM, Google docs, I used trending tools like Yammer and even IRC (old school)

    I hate phone and skype calls, they force you to quit what you are doing and answer the call.

    What do you use?

    • I prefer to use the phrase “use the highest bandwidth medium that makes sense.” In most cases that means face-to-face or a phone call. It goes down from there until you reach the bottom (in my opion) of using email.

      When using IRC I generally like two channels. The first is a general channel which can be ignored if you get immersed in something. The other is an “emergency” channel which acts as a priority interrupt. I tell people to use the 2nd channel only if it really is an emergency of some sort. I can then put alerts on just the one channel and get some visual cue when something important needs to be looked at.

      See my posting from last year on how Microsoft Outlook (or any other email client) is often configured in a way which is anti-productive.

      – Bob –

  5. The problem with voice and video is that they are NMIs. They don’t communicate fast enough for the receiver, but they prevent you from actually being able to do any other work while the other person is speaking. There is also no logging.

    I personally find email good for things which need well thought out, reasoned comments. IRC is good for rapid, on the spot discussion.

    Communicating is hard. Communicating over an asynchronous, high-density textual channel is better from the recipients PoV, rather than from the PoV of the sender.

    Voice is good for decisions with necessarily high emotional content. Voice breaks flow. Breaking flow is fatal to anything which needs state maintainance in the mind.

    FWIW,
    Plain text email is high bandwidth, high latency communication.
    HTML email is lower bandwidth, high latency communication.
    IRC (or IM conference rooms) are low bandwidth, low latency communication channels.
    Voice is low bandwidth, low latency for data, high bandwidth, low latency for emotions.

    • Devdas, I’m not sure I agree with your characterizations about the bandwidth of various methods of communication. Do you have a source for this?

      In my opinion email, no matter its form is always low-bandwidth. You simply can’t type fast enough to make it high bandwidth.

      Voice, to me, is higher bandwidth because almost everyone speaks faster than they can type. It is also bi-directional in near real-time where email is not.

      The NMI (non-maskable interrupt for non-techies, meaning you can’t stop it from occurring) problem is real with voice (phone for example). However, in my experience, a small amount of NMI work makes everyone more productive in the long run because decisions are made much faster.

      As for logging, I tell my classes that whenever a decision is made, it needs to be logged somewhere because someone else will eventually need the information. IRC and email provide “logging” but what good does it do if the person needing the results wasn’t on the channel or email at the same time?

      – Bob –

  6. Interesting post and comments. A few thoughts. Email can be useful, IF used well, since it can force people to think through things. Again, IF it is used well. Often it is used like IM or Twitter and it is a pointless conversation.

    One assumption I see a lot is that your top priority is NOT the top priority of the person you are disturbing (I used disturbing on purpose). If you have a 100% dedicated team that (which is ideal) that is great – assuming the person you are talking to is on the team.

    I think you need to consider who you’re talking to and be sure to ask “is this a good time, if not what is?”, before jumping in. Tough to do, I know I don’t always remember to do that.

    Also, consider that while high bandwidth may be the desire, sometimes what you need to say is better put in some other form (at least to start). If your goal is have the message received and understood and receive feedback – email may work to begin that process, followed-up up with a conversation. Even bringing over a diagram or document you mocked up could work to move the conversation forward faster to get to your goal.

Bob Hartman

Known as Agile Bob, brings over 30 years of experience and broad industry knowledge cultivated by serving in almost every role in the software industry including developer, tester, documentation writer, trainer, product manager, project manager, business analyst, senior software engineer, development manager and executive. Over the past 15 years Bob has grown from being an early adopter of Agile to his current status as a Certified Scrum Trainer® (CST) and Certified Enterprise Coach℠ (CEC) and an expert in training, coaching and mentoring across all areas of Agile development. Bob is a popular speaker, having spoken at numerous major conferences, seminars, workshops and user group meetings where his engaging style, holistic view of development and personal anecdotes are always well received by attendees.

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