How we put a man on the moon without email

Last week I worked with a group of R&D engineers at a high-tech company. As for so many others, the blessing of email has turned into the bane of their existence. Each person gets a minimum of 200 emails per day (the vast majority of which aren't terribly important or relevant), and the burden of reading all that email keeps them from spending time on the stuff that's really important to their customers.

After I pointed out that email is nothing more than the high-tech equivalent of two dixie cups and a string -- just a way of transmitting information, but not actually one's job -- one of the engineers wondered how NASA's engineers managed to put a man on the moon without tools like email. His point, of course, was that despite the problems caused by email, in the end there's a net gain in productivity.

It turns out that there is an engineer at the company who worked on the Apollo project, and the leader of the R&D group once asked him precisely that question: how did you manage without email? The engineer explained that the team met from 9-10am three days per week. The rest of the time they were actually working on solving this enormous puzzle of landing on the moon. As Nathan Zeldes, a principle engineer at Intel puts it, these guys were "plan-driven," not "interrupt-driven." And when unexpected problems arose, they actually talked to each other.

I used to work at a dotcom company in the early days of instant messaging. I remember sitting across the aisle of the giant cube farm from my friend Jennifer and exchanging IMs about having lunch together. It would take about six or eight messages -- read: interruptions -- back and forth to decide on a time and a place to eat. Prior to IM, of course, we would have simply talked for about 30 seconds to make our plans. One interruption: no muss, no fuss. But yielding to the siren call of new technology, we used IM, and ended up being far less efficient in accomplishing our goal.

It's true that organizations today are more complex and more far-flung than the original Apollo group at NASA. And email makes it easier to overcome some of the difficulties inherent in such complicated companies. But you have to choose the right tool for the job. Just because it's free, easy to use, and readily accessible to all does *not* mean that email is the best way to get things done. Sometimes actually talking with someone is a much better way to solve problems than reliance upon email or IM.

Remember: email is a tool to help you get your job done. It is not your job, anymore than the phone is. If you treat it as such, you might find that it's less of a millstone around your neck and more of a true productivity tool.