Using email to make decisions asynchronously and deliver projects with distributed teams

Over the last couple of years I’ve seen a rise in remote and distributed teams. Sometimes they span pretty big timezone gaps (my own team is a prime example, covering US Eastern, Central European, India Standard, and Australia Eastern). With smart people working on things together but separately and asynchronously, reliable coordination becomes extra important.

Basics of asynchronous decision making

I’ll start with a few basic assumptions about working asynchronously.

  1. It is important to use tools that everyone can be productive with.
  2. Everyone involved in a project should be able to have their say and give their input.
  3. You want to be able to move from discussion to decision
  4. While keeping a record of the how and the why.

Avoiding the endless back and forth

Scheduling project calls that allow all participants to show up at their best can be pretty hard when they’re dialing in from around the world. Often when the discussion moves forward on email things get muddled. You wind up deep diving on some inconsequential part of the project and important stuff gets skipped. You get a seemingly endless back and forth with details scattered throughout the thread and no clear actions or decisions being taken.

Four asynchronous decision making principles

Despite all this email can be a powerful asynchronous decision making tool if you stick to four key principles

Principle 1: One thread per decision topic

Often times email-based discussions are encapsulated like meetings: numerous topics are grouped together for discussion and action. When you have even a small group working on something together, the potential branches in that discussion get exponentially confusing very quickly. Instead, use the subject of the email thread to specifiy the scope of what you need to discuss within it. Keep it narrow and focused. If you find that the discussion moves to another topic, recognize it and spin it out to it’s own thread.

Principle 2: Specify discussion points and decision points up front

Make it clear where you want perspectives and information inputs from the group, and the decisions you will be using that information to drive. When new discussion points are identified call them out, likewise when additional decisions are discovered.

Principle 3: Follow natural discussion phases

If you think of an action oriented conversation, you’ll find that there are phases to it. You’ll have:

  • context setting,
  • perspective gathering,
  • assimilation,
  • decision making,
  • and action assignment.

Don’t try do these in one step, and don’t try to skip any of them either.

Principle 4: Manage the discussion to decision proactively

None of the above will happen by itself, just like the most effective meetings are usually facilitated towards an outcome. Someone should be guiding the discussion through to completion, calling out new discussion points and decisions, pointing out when the conversation isn’t moving the discussion towards a useful outcome, and so on. If no one else is doing it, you can just step in.

The next time you see an email discussion kick off in support of something your team is working on, take a moment to identify the discussion topics within it. Follow this approach and see how long you can go without having to jump on a call.

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