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What can military tips about effective emails teach us about change?

In HBR's November 2016 edition, I was particularly drawn to a piece by Kabir Sehgal about military tips for writing effective emails.

Hardly ground breaking, mind-altering, life-changing stuff….

Or is it?

At the time, I’d been sitting in on an executive team meeting. Strategic priorities took a mere ten minutes, while the curse of the dreaded email monopolised the rest of agenda – and put my then boss in a foul mood for the rest of the day!

Based on learnings from time serving in the military, Kabir offered three tips to format crisp, clear emails able to elicit quicker and higher-quality responses from colleagues and clients. They sounded like a miracle cure.

As I think back to that time, what I recall was the initial spike of interest and appetite for a quick fix from my colleagues – which then rapidly fizzled out. Kabir's tips were never adopted.

Like all well-intentioned process improvement, I also recall the fear of the risk that even the simplest of fixes or most sensible of models would morph into a cottage-industry of busyness and bureaucracy when trying to bring it to life.

In a typical human response, the decision making became binary – do it or don’t.


We didn’t.

We chose not to take on board the simplest of tips to improve the quality and impact of a communication medium that was creating pain and anguish for all.

The case for support couldn’t be more robust. So why didn’t we go for it? Why don’t humans start doing things differently that on the surface would have such an immediate and positive impact?

Kabir’s tips for writing emails with military precision were:

  1. Subjects with keywords

  2. BLUF – Bottom Line Up Front!

  3. Be economical

Let’s look at each in more detail…

1. Use standard keywords in your subject

Benefits:

  • Your emails will stand out in the recipient’s inbox

  • The recipient will quickly know the purpose and what to do with it

  • It forces you to think about what you really want from someone before you add to their inbox clutter

Examples of military keywords include:

  • ACTION – Compulsory for the recipient to take some action (eg: Subject: ACTION – Weekly Implementation Report)

  • INFO – For informational purposes only, and there is no response or action required (eg: Subject: INFO – Status Update)

  • DECISION – Requires a decision by the recipient

  • REQUEST – Seeks permission or approval by the recipient (eg: Subject: REQUEST – Vacation)

2. Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF)


Benefits:

  • Clear declaration of the purpose of the email and action required

  • Quickly answers the five Ws – who, what, where, when and why

  • Distils the most important information for the reader

  • Answers the reader’s question “how does this email affect me?”

  • Recognises that the reader doesn’t necessarily want to know all the background information that led to the bottom line

An example of how this might look:

Subject: INFO – Working from home


Bottom Line: We will reduce the number of days that employees can work from home from three to one day per week effective December 1st.


Background:

  • This is an effort to encourage team morale and foster team collaboration

  • All members of the management committee supported this decision

The reader knows that no response is required because it was marked INFO. They quickly grasp the information in the email because of the Bottom Line. Background details are provided because of the significant change in policy and to show that the decision is final, supported by management, and intended to result in positive effects for the company.

3. Be economical with words so your message fits in one pane


Benefits:

  • Short emails usually more effective

  • The reader doesn’t have to scroll and can quickly grasp your message

  • Use of active voice reduces sentence length and supports greater clarity

  • Use of active voice puts nouns ahead of verbs so it’s clear who’s doing the action

An example of how this might look:

  • Before – “The factory was bombed by an F18”

  • After – “An F18 bombed the factory”


See. Nothing sinister there.


Or is there?

Below are some reasons this approach didn’t land at the time. They’re captured as statements and thoughts shared by colleagues and contacts I tested Kabir’s ideas out with:

  • “I’m not sure what I really want from the person I'm contacting until I start typing…”

  • “I’m too busy to spend time crafting a perfectly worded email…”

  • “It takes too long to simplify all the detail into such succinct and simple language – and I don’t have the time…”

  • “I’ve worked really hard on this and need you to know the backstory…”

  • “I’m not sure you’re going to like this message so want to be able to mitigate any negative response…”

  • “I need to get it out of my inbox and into someone theirs…” (Both the message and the monkey!)

  • “The subject demarcations are obvious…”

  • “The subject demarcations are so shouty (and rude) in capitals…”

  • “No one else is doing this…”

  • “It’ll never catch on…”

  • “There’s another way we did this in my last organisation that’s much better…”

  • “We’re not in the military…”

  • “It’s such an abrupt and unfriendly approach…”

  • “It sounds so rude and impersonal…”

  • “I wouldn’t want to receive an email like that…”

Sound familiar?

For me, this is such a great illustration of how even the simplest, most beneficial change, addressing something that is a common source of apparent pain and distress, isn’t as easy as it looks.

No matter how well-intentioned, seeking to solve the problem everyone is complaining about by focusing solely on process change and up-skilling doesn’t work.

What does work is accepting the glorious, unpredictable and often messy business of human complexity and finding out what’s really going on.



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