Email certainly makes our lives easier and better. Perhaps it has been a mainstay in your life since the old days when AOL greeted you with a hearty “You’ve got mail!”
However, even though email has been an essential tool for instant communication since the 1990s, it is just about the worst way to organize group efforts and manage projects. It could be one of the top productivity killers of our day.
Here are ten reasons we hate email for teamwork and group coordination as well as 4 tools that solve these problems.
1. Email: Endless searching and scrolling for what you need
Ever vaguely remember that someone told you something about a project over email, but you can not remember what exactly it was that he or she said? Maybe you remember the person’s name. You search and find 200 email threads involving that person.
When you open an email thread, it may contain dozens of emails going back and forth. You have to find which email contains the answer.
This is the biggest problem with using email for project management: Information is unorganized.
In contrast, with a decent project management or group collaboration solution, you can see all the essential information at just a glance. More detailed information that cannot be viewed in the summary can easily be found in linked files or at the bottom of the page. For example, any rules or deliverables for the project await for your perusal under the title “Rules” or “Deliverables.”
Here at IVANNOVATION we use a team collaboration system called Confluence. Here is a sample of one of our translation projects’ Confluence pages. At the top is a summary of all the basic info, an at-a-glance outline of the project.
2. Cannot Make Comments
Sure, in emails, you can make comments about what people say, but that requires you to quote the person and then comment, so you have to copy, paste, and click that little quote button. Then when someone reads the email thread, they are not quite sure about the context of the quote, so they have to go back and search for the original statement.
In contrast, any project management solution should enable collaborators to make comments on specific tasks or bits of information. Therefore, discussions are organized according to topics, whereas email is organized according to the time that it was sent, which, unless you are a forensic investigator, is a rather useless way to order information about projects.
Further, with a project management solution, discussions are organized by topics. Each thread naturally discusses only one topic, saving hours of typing.
For example, instead of saying in an email, “As for your second question regarding the guy that is coming and doing the thing: I think that’s a good idea.” You can simply say in a topic-focused discussion thread, “Yes,” and everyone will know what you are saying yes about.
Confluence allows users to highlight a word or phrase and then discuss it in the margin. When the issue is resolved, anyone can archive the comment thread.
3. Cannot edit what others have written
Text cannot be edited by other team members. With email the best you can do is copy the original statement and change the wording. The result is that there are several versions floating around the company email system.
A project management system allows all collaborators to create and change any tasks or reference information that they have permission to edit. The result is that there is one source of information that is always the latest version. Historical versions also available at a click.
4. Cannot Assign Task or Project Status
Steps or items in emails cannot be easily marked with a workflow status like “doing,” “review,” “awaiting approval,” or “done.” Emails can be tagged or filed in order to give them a status, but a typical email discusses various matters like for example, preparations for the boss’s birthday party as well as preparations for the upcoming expo. This makes effective tagging for status impossible.
The project management systems mentioned here all have status baked into the system. Smartsheet for example, which is a spreadsheet system designed for coordinating teams, features a column that tells the status of the item, making it easy to filter for only items with a particular status such as “open.”
5. Cannot Assign Work to Teammates or Vendors
Traditional email lacks any way of assigning tasks to individuals except for the old way of just asking, “Hank, would you mind giving me the dohinkey?” But then people forget they were supposed to do things, and other people forget if you asked them to do it or not. Worst of all, the project manager forgets who he asked to do what.
Assigning work is foundational for any team collaboration tools. Confluence, Trello, and Asana all have @mentioning capability so that you can assign tasks to yourself or others on the team. On a Confluence page the user can insert a checkbox, a date, and an @mention. By doing this the user creates and assigns a task with a deadline to someone.
6. People Forget to “Reply to all” or Sometimes Worse . . . They Do “Reply to all”
When collaborating with email, someone is always forgetting to reply to all. Others get left out of the flow of information, work gets done twice or not at all, and frustration mounts. Likewise, others who have little to no interest in the project often get included in group emails. It clutters up their inboxes and causes them to waste time and to overlook important matters.
Once when we had business cards designed, the interactions with the designer and other members of the company resulted in 4 email threads and 63 emails. Some emails were to everyone. Some emails were only to the designer or to one or another member in the company. The result was that we always had to go through the emails to see who had heard what and who needed to get what information.
With a project management tool, everyone is free to spend as little or as much time as they like looking at the project details. No one is forced to hear about every little change on the project, yet all the information is there for anyone to check up on. No one gets left out of the free flow of information. With @mentions the details that are most important to specific people are pushed to their newsfeeds or added to their particular to-do lists. Further, the tools can send emails to group members to tell them that they have new tasks.
7. Did I read this message already?
It can be hard to remember and then determine whether you have already read a message. Have you ever clicked on an email string and read one of the new emails but missed another new one? Or have you ever started with the most recent email and read further and further back trying to remember if you had read them before or not? It is easy to miss important information with email.
As mentioned before, in project management tools all the important information is organized, so you do not need to worry if you have missed a detail; the information is always there for you to check up on. Further, they have notification feeds to let you know what has changed.
8. Copy, Copy, Copy . . .
Unlike a project management system, email does not have a static place where the most up-to-date version of a given document is stored. The best that can be done when managing projects with email is to have a Dropbox folder or Google Docs folder with the shared files. But once again, the problem emerges that people do not know or they forget where the folder is or what the files mean to the project.
All four of the project management systems mentioned here have the ability to upload files. All of the group members can access them when they wish. The most up-to-date file stays where you need it.
9. Cannot Stage Votes
Well, you can hold votes over email, but who wants to be the bloke to have to count them?
Voting with project management tools is as easy as clicking on the “vote” or “like” button for an item. Let’s say your team is going to hold a meeting in the afternoon. Your teammates have all contributed topics you need to discuss, but you do not have time to discuss all of the items. By letting collaborators vote on the items that are most important to them, you can gauge the popularity of the items.
10. No Calendar View
Email systems often come with calendar applications, but they are not integrated with the email in a way that is helpful for project management. When someone gives you a job to do, you do not see the deadline automatically displayed on your calendar. You have to put it on your calendar by yourself.
A good project management tool, however, allows users to view tasks as either a task list or as events on a calendar. It puts every task or item that has a deadline onto a calendar. This feature helps users to gauge how busy they will be at any given time in the future.
What to use instead of email
So those are our ten reasons why you should not use email to manage projects along with four tools that we would recommend instead. All four of the tools excel at making your project management and group collaboration easier, yet their ways of doing so could hardly be any more different.
Basically, Confluence is like Word documents, Smartsheet is like Excel spreadsheets, Trello is like Post-it notes, and Asana is like to-do lists. Below we will compare the tools briefly with their pros and cons.
Basically Confluence is like a system of word processing documents optimized for managing teams and sharing information. It includes the ability to add tasks and assignments, landing it in the project management category, but it is especially designed to be a place where teams share information as a reference or archive. Therefore, it can be a little more cumbersome to make tasks and edit information than the other tools. For more functionality regarding task management, check out the companion tool JIRA.
- Users can collect complex data and organize it easily.
- It is great for keeping records.
- Commenting is easy, highly contextual, and fun.
- Users can use macros and plugins to extend functionality.
- Making tasks requires hitting the edit button, entering the task, and then hitting the save button.
- Tasks do not automatically archive or reorder when they have been completed. They just gray out.
- A good calendar feature needs to be purchased from the Confluence Marketplace.
Smartsheet is like a souped up spreadsheet for tasks rather than numbers. Managers can design the sheet they want by choosing from various columns that have special functions. Some examples of columns are “Assigned to,” “Draft Due,” “Draft Status,” “Attachments,” et cetera. Whereas various types of information are in the columns, different items are in different rows. Smartsheet is extremely useful, but it feels a little boring.
- It is easy to use.
- It is perfect not only for tasks but also reference information.
- A spreadsheet is by nature very structured.
- A manager can easily set up a structure that other users must follow.
- It includes Gantt charts.
- It looks boring.
- Trello and Asana are easier to learn.
- Users may have to scroll from side to side to see all of the information on any given issue.
Trello is like a system of sticky notes. Those who are familiar with Agile development will instantly recognize the Kanban system in its design. Trello is beautiful and easy to use. It is so fun that you will want to use it to organize everything in your life. However, the main drawback is that it is unstructured. Any structure in the system must be imposed by the user, making it a little intimidating to start using to organize your projects. Fortunately, Trello has a page called Inspiring Boards. This page has Trello boards that you can copy for anything from party planning to content marketing schedules.
- Trello is free!
- Trello boards are beautiful. With a paid membership, you can make them even more beautiful with photos and patterns.
- Trello is simple to edit and change. Click and drag on any Trello notes (or card) to reorder them or to move them to a different list.
- Trello is flexible.
- Trello can be organized any way you please, so it feels a little unstructured. There are multiple ways to mark status, so which one should you choose?
- Comments apply to entire cards rather than individual words or sentences, so potentially a string of comments could cover multiple topics. That is why any individual card should not contain too much information.
- The task list functionality is not as powerful as that of Asana. If you @mention someone, it might mean you just want them to have a look, or it may mean that you want them to do something.
Asana is a system of to-do lists designed for groups rather than just individuals. The screen is divided into three panes. On the left is the list of projects. In the middle is the lists of tasks for that project. Finally in the right pane is the information about that task, including subtasks. Asana is not as fun or as flexible as Trello, but it has more structure and involves an easier learning curve than any of the others.
- Asana is easy and structured.
- For teams smaller than 15 members, Asana is Free.
- If you like lists . . .
- Unlike Confluence and Smartsheet, Asana is not great for making reference materials available to the team.
Good systems for helping you manage a team and finish projects abound; here we have listed only four of them. The key is to move your management activities off of email for the ten reasons given above and onto a reliable system that will save you time and reduce your chance of mistakes.
These are just four of our favorite systems. Do you have a system you prefer? What tools do you like best?