Writing effective e-mails III: Making decisions

One frustration that we all have at one time or another is that we need someone to make a decision and they don’t do it in time for us to get our work done. There are ways you can use e-mail to help you to break this bottleneck.

The first tactic you can use is suited to situations where you feel that the decision to be made is obvious/uncontroversial, but it needs to be signed off by your boss, the client, whoever. Wait until you’ve already given the person sufficient time and reminders inform you of their decision, and they haven’t done so: how long will depend on the circumstance… it could be anything from weeks or months to hours or even minutes. When you’re at crunch point, then you can send them what I call an IF/THEN e-mail. Here you explain again what decision needs to be made, explain why you think the obvious/non-controversial decision is correct, and then say at the end, “If I do not hear from you by [achievable date] I will assume you are happy with this and do [obvious option].”

What if the decision is not obvious, or – if it is – you’re not in possession of enough of the relevant facts to make the decision? In that case, you need to send another an IF/THEN e-mail and make clear the consequences of a decision not being taken in a particular timeframe. For instance, you might, again, outline what you know about the decision to be taken and the issues surrounding it. Then you might explain how the lack of a decision in this area is holding back work in a particular area. Finally you explain, “If we do not have a decision from you by [achievable date], then [there is no way we can meet your deadline; we will have to charge you more to expedite phase 3 of the project; we will have to complete the project without this feature incorporated; or… whatever else applies].”

There are two things to note here. First, it’s really important that you give the client/boss/whoever plenty of time and reminders to make their decision naturally before you go ahead and start using these tactics, as some people will feel like they’re being backed into a corner and will not like you for it. However, better that than unnecessary delays. Second, you need to leave yourself enough time so that – even if they miss your first deadline – you can send them an IF/THEN e-mail that they can achievably react to in the time available.

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