Businesses like yours waste valuable time and money on a bewildering array of communication and project management systems. This overview will make you aware of some of the common pitfalls encountered by Lisa, Michael, Andrea, Pauline and Donald.

Most people now realize email is a huge waste of time and attention. Researchers are discovering email can even affect your physical and mental health. The average office worker spends more than 25% of their day managing email, while less than 10% of their messages are actionable.

If you search for alternatives to email you’ll find so many products they’ll make your head spin. However, if you squint hard enough, most fall into one of these categories.

  • Online Task Lists
  • Online Project Management Systems
  • Domain Specific Workflow
  • Social Software for Enterprise
  • Email Fixer-Uppers

Online Task Lists – don’t scale

Lisa manages four small teams of software developers. They started using a popular project management and task tracking tool and found some immediate benefits. They were able to create projects and tasks online and share and assign them to other people on the team. They moved all their tasks from post-it-notes and spreadsheets to a system that gave everyone visibility of what was happening whether they were in the office or working from another location.

While they saw short term gains, they quickly hit the limitations of these systems. One team, five engineers working on short projects (one-month iterations of the software) suddenly had lists with 250 tasks. No one could see who was doing what next. Even worse, everyone on the project was getting email notifications of all task completions, generating a lot of noise.

The system had a fixed structure; projects contained milestones which contained tasks. When the team wanted to sub-divide tasks they started sending emails. Suddenly, some of the project information went invisible again – black market tasks.

Simple task and project management systems hit limitations even for small teams.

Project Management and Domain Specific Workflow – for niche

Michael is a game producer managing a 120 person multi-disciplinary team. Michael started the project, created the initial plan on a Gannt chart. But he realized the Gannt chart was really just good for planning and wasn’t so useful for the day-to-day running of the project.

The software developers on the game used specialized tools, an agile project tracking system & a bug tracker. The QA group used the bug tracker but not the agile system. The art & animation teams didn’t like the agile system or the bug tracker and used neither properly. The marketing team didn’t like any of the tools, so they just used email and spreadsheets.

The agile project management system helped the team leaders allocate work to different releases and track the progress as a project was ongoing, but the individual engineers felt they were just feeding data into the system and seeing very little value in return.

Everyone on the project wrote a progress report at the end of the week. This was then filtered by their team leads and sent to Andrea an associate producer. She collated and summarized everything into a single 9-page email that’s was circulated and reviewed by all the producers once a week.

Andrea spent most of her time doing clerical work, chasing people for late status reports, cross checking everything and reconciling it back to the original project plan. Everyone spent time writing status reports and sitting in meetings. By the time the executive team analyzed and acted on the 9-page email, the information was watered down and a week out of date.

When tools are complex and specialist you won’t get broad adoption in a multi-disciplinary project. Critical project information gets scattered into a number of information silos.

Email & Enterprise Social – don’t help you get things done

Pauline runs a European sales and marketing team for a multinational corporation. Each quarter they start 40 different projects in 13 countries in Europe. Some projects involve external sub-contract companies.

They tried a popular internal collaboration system but it became cumbersome to track a large number of projects. They could never convince their IT team to make the system accessible to the external sub-contractors. Everyone reverted to email and a weekly three-hour status meeting.

Now Pauline receives on average 104 emails a day. 11 of them are actionable – things she needs to do. But she has to read all 104 emails, just in case an action she’s expected to take, is nestled in the third-last paragraph.

The IT team installed an enterprise social platform. Initially it was popular with a number of internal blogs being published. Interesting dialogs happened but great ideas in posts and comments were never acted on (or if they were, the results never connected back to the posts or comments).

The enterprise social platform made it easier to share information, but it didn’t help people do their day to day jobs; it didn’t help them orchestrate action within the organization.

Email Fixer-Uppers – same old thinking

Donald works for a creative agency. At any one time he’s working on six different projects, some in early concept stage others in execution phase. The IT team recently installed an enhanced email system that filters emails automatically and helps him organize the emails in smart folders. Donald likes the system even though it really slows down his computer. The big problem though is he’s alone. Everyone else he works with, tinkered with the system but didn’t change their email practices and just drifted back to email as usual. They didn’t think differently, so they didn’t act differently.

To paraphrase Ted Nelson – fixing email is like trying to graft arms and legs onto a hamburger.

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