Break the Email Chain

One of the problems in a geographically distributed team is the dreaded email chain. Someone has a problem and sends an email. Probably late in the day, when he or she is frustrated after pounding on the problem all day, getting nowhere–except more frustrated.

Sally sends the email to the project team. I take offense at her choice of words, and answer her–ratcheting up the tension. Maybe John steps in to mediate, and we both yell at him–still in email. If he is smart, he backs away, but if he is like most of us, he wades in, and bam, now three of us are yelling at each other–in email. The problem with the email chain is that the email escalates the problem.

This is no way to solve problems in a project. The only way to resolve these problems is to break the email chain.

But what if these people are all many hours away from each other, and don't easily overlap? That's when you need someone who is willing to be a “zoner,” someone who is willing to overlap time zones for the good of the project. (See below for a reference for zoner.)

The zoner doesn't have to be the project manager, but often is, in a more traditional project. In an agile project, you can decide who will be the zoner for a given iteration, and spread the love or pain, as you prefer, around.

The zoner takes responsibility for looking at the entire project holistically and saying, “Hold on. I'd better pick up the phone and call these people, one at a time, and figure out what is going on. It might take me a little while. I might have to stay up late or get up early, but I will talk to people in real-time and understand the problem.”

That's how you break the email chain.

It's a form of risk management for geographically distributed teams. It's not easy. It requires a little patience, the ability to work outside your desired sleep times, and the willingness to pick up the phone.

Are you willing to do so? Is someone on your team willing to do so?

Note: I first heard the term “zoner” from Carmel and Espinosa's great book I'm Working While They're Sleeping: Time Zone Separation Challenges and Solutions. I am working on my review of the book. If you are working in a geographically distributed team you should read this book, and I'll tell you why shortly.

2 Replies to “Break the Email Chain”

    1. Yes, and then the team is lost in the discussion/fight until someone breaks the chain and pops back up the stack, and says, “Hey, what’s the real problem?”

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