Tag: teams

The end of email?


Email is like a tax that we all collect from each other.

Tiago Forte

Over recent years the influence of changes in technology has changed the way we communicate in our personal lives. We are the whatsapp, Facebook and Instagram generation. The number of different available platforms and formats has led to helpful thinking about the relative pros and cons of different channels and the structure of communication.

In business the default method for digital communication is email.

Let’s be honest, email is starting to look more and more like a relic of the 1990’s that really should be going the way of the curtains haircut and Dawson’s Creek. While it’s associated with modern tech, email inherited it’s communication norms from a different era, decades before the likes of Whatsapp showed us how good communication really works in the digital age.

We’re in the Whatsapp generation – Why should we lug around these overflowing message boxes with message piled on message without context, structure or prioritisation?

The Economist, Harvard Business Review and McKinsey have all made the case for messenger apps over email. They make the point that the low “cost” of sending messages, coupled with the unstructured, unprioritised and context-free architecture of the system kills productivity and ensures that knowledge workers can spend as long communicating about the work they do as doing the work itself.

I see four main benefits of chat/messenger based apps (such as Slack, Hipchat, or Teams) for business:

  • Context-driven Structure (different channels can exist for different projects or teams)
  • Prioritisation (notifications can be prioritised for particular channels)
  • Reflects actual communication norms (no “Dear X …. regards, Dan”)
  • Threaded structure & retrieval (previous messages are immediately there when you refer back to a channel, test search is generally effective)

There are also some common criticisms, which I see more as issues with the way we work rather than the system itself. More on all of this below.

What the research says

A number of articles have been written citing the efficiency gains from alternative methods of communication, and the disadvantages of email:

The Economist May 2016 – The Slack Generation

How workplace messaging could replace other missives


Short summary: workplace messaging systems such as Slack can improve productivity by up to 30% due to: contextual structuring of messages into channels, less formal and more natural style of communication and the ability to work seamlessly across desktop and mobile devices.

Harvard Business Review Feb 2016 – A Modest Proposal – Eliminate Email


Short summary: email engenders an unstructured workflow that can be damaging to productivity, this arises from the architecture of the system: the low cost of messages combined with the association of messages with an individual, rather than a project or task. The attention-switching that the need to constantly check email entails is also very disruptive.

McKinsey & Company 2012 – Unlocking value & productivity through social technologies


Short summary: McKinsey wrote in 2012 that using communication tools that leveraged social-media functionality in a business context could enhance communication, knowledge sharing and collaboration. They estimate this could enhance the productivity of knowledge-workers by 20-25%. They find that the average knowledge-worker spends half their time in the office communicating about their work and a third actually doing the work they were hired to do.

Email for work, particularly internally, is starting to feel more and more like a relic of the 1990’s. Why should we lug around these overflowing message boxes with one message piled on top of another without context, structure or prioritisation?

Business comms for the whatsapp generation

I see four main benefits of chat based apps (such as Slack, Hipchat, or Teams) for business:

  • Prioritisation

Many knowledge workers receive hundreds of emails a day (non-spam), being away from the desk for an hour can easily result in 50+ unread messages at certain times. While all of these messages may be valuable at some level they will generally have a very different prioritisation level,which isn’t obvious without sorting through them. Some might be a cc to keep you in the loop on something, or an update from a supplier (which are valuable but not urgent). Others might be a request to urgently review a piece of client work.

A chat application gives one clear channel for high-priority messaging that can be accessed easily and distinctly from email. We already have this in our personal lives with text and whatsapp. Would you email your friend if you were on the way to meet them and needed to let them know something? It isn’t realistic to rely on email – messenger releases what would otherwise be a bottleneck to making fast decisions in certain areas.

Some of the chat platforms allow notifications to be set up and “pushed” selectively (ie from certain groups but not others), or to set up do-not-disturb messages.

  • Structure

A common criticism of email (repeated in the HBR article cited above) is the lack of structure, and the unstructured workflow that email facilitates can be quite negative for productivity. Messages of varying priority, both internal and external, connected to a myriad of projects or clients land in the inbox one after the other. One of the benefits of the messenger apps is the creation of channels relating to specific teams or project groups, which helps structure incoming messages. Ultimately this facilitates more effective  collaboration (also cited in the Economist article above). Due to the structure, emails quickly become unmanageable when multiple people in a project team reply to the same thread, whereas the messenger format helps responses to be more organised. This is particularly important in environments with more remote-working, which is the direction we are going in. 

  • Casual: reflects actual communication

As noted in the Economist article quoted above, the protocols around composing email are still relatively formal (“Dear X …. Regards Dan”) which in many situations is less efficient than how we would communicate in face-to-face. Messenger applications facilitate communication in the  same way as we would interact in person so can be quicker and more to the point. Email tends to be hierarchical and a one-way broadcast. It does not tend to be a tool that naturally prompts feedback or discussion. 

Some message platforms allow “liking” of messages which – given how social media has evolved – represents a more natural and elegant way of indicating agreement than adding another message to the system.

  • Thread structure

The discrete nature of each email means that communication by email frequently results in searching through an inbox for previous communications on the same subject. There is an advantage to preserving the thread in a group chat channel for everyone to see and easily refer back to. In addition some of the messenger platforms have deep search capability due to indexing all the contents of messages and attachments. I for one would love to get back all those working hours I have wasted searching through old emails for something crucial. If used well this can also serve the function of replacing frequent update meetings where face-to-face meeting needs to co-ordinated (which is time consuming, and also less easy with remote working).

The main challenges that need to be solved in adopting a messaging app for business purposes are around information and data security and setting the right boundaries around work/home life such that it does not lead to unwanted out-of-hours bombardment.

Having used Teams at Redington for about 6 months I’m a huge convert – simply put, it makes your comms more organised, more efficient and urgent. It un-clutters your workflow and will make you more productive.


However, there are some commonly cited criticisms which are worth addressing as I don’t see these as negatives in themselves but rather they reveal deeper issues with how work is structured in general.

Criticism #1 “I’m in too many Teams channels”

This isn’t an issue with the app, it’s because you are working in too many teams! The HBR article The Overcommitted Organisation put this really well in describing the situation that many knowledge-work organisations find themselves in whereby multi-teaming (deploying individuals over a variety of teams simultaneously) whilst efficient can also stretch the organisation. This isn’t the fault of a messaging app per se, but structuring messages in channels is more likely to reveal this as an issue.

Criticism #2 “I can’t copy people in who aren’t in the Team”

Ah yes. The Cc box. That brilliant invention of the email era, that lets us push out our messages to anyone and everyone that we like. Adding and removing names, allowing the channeling of information to ebb and flow between varying groups  as we wish. But think about it for a second. This isn’t how communication should work. We shouldn’t be adding and removing people from groups and teams with each message we send. Those that are on the team should see all the messages. Those that aren’t, don’t need to be bothered by them. By all means welcome new people to the team (and some might join for a short period of time, others longer), but much better to be clear about who is on the team and who isn’t, and messenger apps bring this to the fore, whereas email allows us to be too lazy about it.

Here’s to the end of email!


Why a Focus on Personality Matters for a Better Pensions Team

I really enjoyed this fantastic article which featured in the March issue of Harvard Business Review, and explores the Deloitte Business Chemistry model in relation to trying to understand differing work styles and team dynamics. I’d definitely recommend reading the article in full if you haven’t already.


It got me wondering – how might these insights apply to pensions? After all, taking decisions, making progress and enacting change within a DB pension fund involves a huge team effort between trustees, corporate sponsor, in house pensions teams and advisors. In many cases there can be big differences in style and approach between these groups and even individuals within the same group. These differences could derail effective decision making, or they could enhance it.

What is the Deloitte Business Chemistry model?

The Model is based around identifying four different personality styles relevant to teamwork. The purpose of this isn’t to “pigeonhole” individuals but rather to identify a common language that helps everyone understand the differences between them, and appreciate the potential sources of tension (both positive and negative). It also gives some actionable takeaways that you can start thinking about straight away.

I’d encourage you to read the whole article but here is a summary of the four styles:

Pioneers value possibilities, and they spark energy and imagination on their teams. They believe risks are worth taking and that it’s fine to go with your gut. Their focus is big-picture. They’re drawn to bold new ideas and creative approaches.
Guardians value stability, and they bring order and rigor. They’re pragmatic, and they hesitate to embrace risk. Data and facts are baseline requirements for them, and details matter. Guardians think it makes sense to learn from the past.
Drivers value challenge and generate momentum. Getting results and winning count most. Drivers tend to view issues as black-and-white and tackle problems head on, armed with logic and data.
Integrators value connection and draw teams together. Relationships and responsibility to the group are paramount. Integrators tend to believe that most things are relative. They’re diplomatic and focused on gaining consensus.

Source: Harvard Business Review


The challenge in allowing these diverse styles to work together most effectively are the big differences in what energises and alienates each group. For example integrators dislike conflict, but drivers love a solid debate. Also the style in which each group prefers to think and contribute varies greatly: a guardian is likely to want to step through a plan line by line, for a pioneer this might feel quite painful. This has real consequences for situations where differing styles interact.

You’ve probably already recognised elements of your colleagues’ styles in the descriptions above, but what might this mean for running a pension fund?

It’s easy to see how these differing styles might be present around the meeting room of a typical DB pension fund trustee board. Starting with trustees themselves – the connotation of the word “trustee” in English is similar to “guardian” – even though the role of the modern day trustee is much wider than that – and many trustees approach their role with the mindset and style of a guardian (for all the right reasons). They want to see data and facts before taking any decisions that might expose their members to risk, they want to see rigour and convincing arguments in the choices being made in the management of the assets.

All makes total sense – we’re dealing with members’ future financial security here in many cases after all – however contrast this with (say) a “driver” in the chairman’s seat: someone brought in to get things moving, passionate about making progress, changing things for the better, making members better off. It becomes easy to see how these differing styles might cause tension.

Let’s add in the corporate sponsor angle – perhaps a pioneer in the CFO or CEO seat. A natural risk taker who doesn’t like to hear the word “no”, drawn to bold and innovative approaches and focused on the big picture. Sound familiar?

Where are the advisors in all of this? 

The key advisors to the scheme (actuary, investment consultant, covenant advisor, lawyer) will also contribute to the team dynamic, perhaps significantly so, and might have a variety of styles – and this is one area actually where the model opens up some choice. The trustees can choose their advisors after all and if they are aware of the mix they naturally have around the table, then they might want to select their advisor to complement that. Perhaps an integrator to try and bring people together, or a driver to generate momentum alongside the chair. Perhaps it might even help to have different personalities in the advisors – a guardian to represent and appeal to the guardian types around the table alongside a driver.

Without wanting to generalise excessively, it’s my experience that actuarial-types are likely to often display guardian characteristics to some degree (having said that I do know plenty of pioneer and driver actuaries). In some ways this isn’t surprising: careful study, discipline and logic are what gets you through the exams (and probably attracts many people to the profession). Having guardians among your advisers may be good, but might not be the best choice if the trustee board is already guardian-heavy.

The picture is further complicated in those pension funds that might have significant internal teams involved in the management. Perhaps a bold portfolio manager with pioneering anti-consensus views. There might be an integrator in there, or more guardians.

So what?

So the model’s great, but what can we do with it? What actions can we take away in order to help our pensions teams work better together, harnessing the benefits of cognitive diversity rather than experiencing the tensions.

Well, firstly simply having a common language to understand the differing styles within teams I personally find hugely helpful. Being able to depersonalise by saying things like “look, the guardian in me is saying X”, or “the driver in the room would be saying Y” allows teams to lightheartedly explore the differences without things becoming personal or existential, and hopefully without battle lines being drawn.

But there is more than that.

Adjust your style

Once you are aware that you’re a guardian type, craving rigour and logic, working alongside a driver who is committed to progress and getting things done it becomes easier to recognise and adjust your style – perhaps that means going outside your comfort zone to try and get to a decision on a key issue with incomplete data,  being happy working with a bit of ambiguity in an area that can’t be pinned down, or being open to new types of solution that don’t necessarily fit into existing modes of thinking. On the flip side the driver might need to be patient in systematically exploring the data behind the decision to appease the guardians, stepping through details like by line when their instinct is to get it done and move on.

Recognise minority styles 

Making sure that minority groups are represented and have a voice is really important to be productive and is something that can be influenced – for example it’s possible to verbally acknowledge that a group is guardian-heavy and that they need to try and listen to – and be receptive to the perspective of –  the drivers. Rather than playing “devil’s advocate” in challenging ideas, it may be more helpful to “play driver” or guardian. Especially if that isn’t your natural style.

Add to the team carefully 

When there’s the opportunity or need to add to the team, the model gives a clear roadmap for exploring the fit between the needs of the team in terms of personality and potential candidates. In particular it highlights the need to bring integrators to the table, and potentially the need to bring more balance to the driver/guardian split.

Get close to your opposites 

It’ll often be in one-on-one relationships where the real differences emerge and pain-points become apparent. Knowing how those styles opposite to you will react, what energises them, and how they prefer to work will be really helpful. It might involve getting out of your own comfort zone and adapting your style (as mentioned above), but it must just increase the chance of progress being made.
Beware of cascades

Teams with lopsided composition can be vulnerable to decision making biases such as cascades – where the views of those first to speak become echoed by others and grow into a crescendo until they go unchallenged. The key to addressing this is to consciously “elevate” the minority styles on the team – perhaps making sure they are first to speak when it comes to decision making.

These are just some quick thoughts on how this powerful model could apply to pensions. Do tweet me with your thoughts.