Virtual Teams: Managing Large Amounts of Information

By Craig Covello, PMP:

Many of us who manage large projects are flooded by e-mail and their associated attachments each day. These discrete items of information sit in our in-box silently demanding attention, yet often the subject lines do a poor job of drawing our attention to items which should be read first.  This is particularly true when e-mails have been forwarded multiple times.  Each contributor adds something new which may or may not be relevant to the topic at hand. This can slowly transform the original message, while leaving the subject line unchanged. To make matters worse, items arrive from a variety of sources in chronological order, which further serves to hide what is truly important. Some of us attempt to prioritize the information by simply reviewing each document, either chronologically or starting with the most recent e-mail and moving backwards. Often times, we try to commit the information to our memory.  But since it is difficult to retain more than four or five topics simultaneously, we resort to a more “stimulus driven” approach by acting on each document immediately after we’ve read it.  That action might be to:

  • Make one or more phone calls to inform, clarify or initiated an action.
  • Respond or forward the e-mail via e-mail for the same purpose.
  • File the information in an e-mail folder.
  • Disregard the e-mail and delete it.

The problem with the stimulus driven approach is that it ignores prioritization based upon our situational assessment of a large project.  Typically, these projects are comprised of sizable teams in a matrix business structure spanning large geographic areas, aka “virtual teams”. There can be much diversity of thought as well as physical distance between contributors.  With so many voices, we sometimes allow external forces to manipulate our work day.  We become subservient to the in-basket.

There is a better way.  You may want to consider summarizing each email by creating your own notes. In many cases, I find this approach much easier than trying to commit the information in memory or filing it in its original form. Here’s one method:

Read the email or attachment in its entirety.

When you have a general understanding of what the sender is trying to convey, read it again, but this time simply scan for information that is important to you.  When you find it, use the Windows copy/paste function to drop it into your notes.

Once the information is in your notepad, you can then rearrange keywords and sentences in ways that are meaningful in the context of your assessment as the project manager. You can also juxtaposition the summary notes from one source with summaries from other topics to get a larger, more accurate picture of the situation or issue.

Admittedly, this method does require a little more upfront effort. The thought of writing summary notes may not be compatible with your work style, but for me, the work invested up front when a communication is received pays tremendous dividends downstream. Your workload will lighten dramatically, since summarizing will reduce the amount of time you will spend revisiting a topic.  You will be capturing information on your own terms.  That is a key concept. Writing summary notes will force you to critically think about each fact and assumption contained in an e-mail. It will also enable you to prioritize, and in some cases, correct the information.  By using this method, you may

  • Increase your understanding of issues and events by connecting the dots.
  • Help others by dramatically reducing the amount of time that would normally spend reviewing e-mail chains and interpreting meaning.

So you might want to give it a try. You may find that this method gives you more confidence, more time and less stress.  It may also help foster common understanding among virtual team members, regardless of background or geography.

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