The peculiar cadence of executive mail messages


When there's a piece of mail sent from a senior executive to the entire product team, it tends to follow a set pattern. It starts out with a history of Group X and commends them on what a great job they have been doing. Congratulating Group X is not the actual purpose of the message; it's just part of the template. Once you've seen enough of these executive mail messages, reading one that starts out congratulating some group sets your spidey-sense a-tingling.

Eventually, the penny drops about halfway down the message: Some major reorganization is going on in Group X, usually in the form of its head leaving the group, although sometimes it's something even more substantial, like the group being absorbed into another group or even being disbanded.

Here's an example message I just made up. The real-life messages are usually much, much longer.

From: Important Person
Subject: Advancing Project Nosebleed to the next generation

The Nosebleed team has been developing orange crayons for industrial stick-figure drawings since it was formed in 2003 as a small team of just two people. Since then, its orange crayons have emerged as the leader in industrial stick-figure drawing, and under the leadership of Bob Smith, its recent release of Orange 3.1 sets a new standard for orangeness, one that will set the direction of the industry for years.

With the release of Orange 3.1, Bob has decided to step down as head of the Nosebleed team in order to pursue his lifelong dream of circumnavigating the globe on a Big Wheel, leaving the Nosebleed team in the capable hands of Alice Jones.

Alice has been an important part of the Nosebleed team since its inception. It was she who observed that the color orange was under-represented in the industrial stick figure crayon space and has led the technical design team in targeting that market opportunity. Alice's background in both technical design and color analysis will prove an enormous asset as the Nosebleed team moves forward into the next decade.

Please join me in personally congratulating Bob for his years of service and welcoming Alice to her new position. If you wish to discuss this change in leadership, feel free to come by my office at any time.

The standard cadence, as you can see, goes like this:

  • First, give the message a vague but ominous title.
  • In the message itself, describe what the team has been doing up until now. The longer and more detailed the description, the greater the suspense. It's like the opening scene of an action movie that consists of the hero at home doing something completely ordinary. The longer he just sits there reading the newspaper and eating his breakfast, the greater the suspense that something is going to explode.
  • Next, state the major upheaval. In action movie terms, this is where a car crashes through the wall without warning.
  • Describe the aftermath of the major upheaval.
  • Conclude with a round of congratulations and follow-ups.

A disturbingly high percentage of executive messages follow this pattern, and once you learn it, you start to get more and more nervous the longer the opening section gets.

Back in the days when people actually used Word's Autosummarize feature, one of the games you could play was to Autosummarize a document and laugh at what Word decided was the most important part. (For best effect, tell Autosummarize to try to summarize lengthy works of creative writing in one hundred words.) I played that game with one of those executive mail messages. When I fed the message into Autosummarize and asked it to rank the sentences in order of most important to least important, it decided that the least important sentence was the "Bob has decided to step down" one.

You might say that this is more proof that Autosummarize is a joke, but my take-away was somewhat different: It led me to realize that this style of executive message is specifically designed to hide the most important information.

Bonus: ObDilbert.

Comments (19)
  1. kinokijuf says:

    The "try to summarize lengthy works of creative writing in one hundred words" link is dead.

  2. kinokijuf says:

    According to word, the most important sentence here is "I played that game with one of those executive mail messages".

  3. No One says:

    I've started playing this game with Project Gutenberg.  Talk about a time sink.

    A Modest Proposal turns out interestingly when cut down to 100 words.  It ends up sounding almost modern American right wing.

  4. Ilia says:

    In some of Russian companies such letters are written as orders, exactly like this:

    R&D Department order #158

    I, Mr. ..., Director of ..., order to:

    1. Create a new group named "Nosebleed"
    2. Make Mr. X the lead of the group.

    3. Make Mr. Y deputy lead of the group doing such-and-other tasks.

    4. Mr. Y, Mr. Z, Mr. K and Mrs. M should report to Mr. X.

    Date of writing.

    Are you sure you'd like this style more? I'm not, because I'm sick and tired of giving orders, of non-smiling people in the streets and so on. It'll be fun if our executives wrote such letters as yours.

    P.S. those "Mr."s I wrote just because they are used in English. In Russian they are just names.

  5. InexorableTash says:

    One also quickly learns at Microsoft that "want to grab coffee?" is code for "I'm moving on and wanted to tell you in person before the mail went out." Which of course leads to proposals for mere beverage consumption requiring additional disclaimers to avert panic.

  6. Chris Long says:

    My company 'right-sized' a few hundred people recently.  Yesterday, I got an email from the big bosses that started:

    "We would like to announce that both UK sites will be closed..."

    I almost had a heart attack before reading the second part of the sentence:

    "...for an extra day's holiday before the Christmas break and we hope you all enjoy the extra time with your families."

    I wonder if they did it deliberately.

  7. Keith says:

    This is also known as the crapwich technique: a piece of crap (bad news) sandwiched between two slices of bread (praise).

  8. jz says:

    Very timely.  Here's an email from Steve Ballmer to everyone in Microsoft just a couple days ago: http://www.microsoft.com/.../12-12steveb-mail.mspx

    Crapwich?  You decide.

  9. Ed R. says:

    Interesting how a lot of 20th century novels are summarized as the protagonist speaking ("William asked. William bowed. William asked, hesitating..."), the 19th century children's book is also summarized as the protagonist speaking, but with a little more description ("Alice felt dreadfully puzzled. Alice sighed wearily. Alice asked. Alice ventured to ask."), but the 19th century novel for adults has a half-way readable summary ("Old Baltus Van Tassel was a perfect picture of a thriving, contented, liberal-hearted farmer. Ichabod was a suitable figure for such a steed.").

  10. Simon Buchan says:

    Turns out 100 word "The Call of Cthulhu" is about as good as it could be, in both summary and tone, surprisingly.

  11. Douglas says:

    100 word summary of the United States Constitution (sans name list and section labels) begins: To borrow Money on the credit of the United States;

  12. JM says:

    Wouldn't it be great if "pursuing your lifelong dream of circumnavigating the globe" was established company euphemism for "being laid off"?

    Manager: "Great news, Bob! We've allocated additional empowerings to the restructuring group, and acting on their recommendations, we'll effect some consequences that will leave *you* free to pursue your lifelong dream of circumnavigating the globe!"

    Bob: "But that's not my dream at all."

    Manager: "Well it could be anything you like, really. The important thing is that we're going to leave you free to do it".

    Bob: "Wait. Are you firing me?"

    Manager: "As part of company policy, we prefer not to utilize loaded terms that can negatively affect staff morale."

    Bob: "But you *are* firing me?"

    Manager: "Did you know Magellan wasn't actually the first person to circumnavigate the globe? He died before he could complete the journey. True story."

    Addendum: of course, now I see the Dilbert strip is making my joke much more concisely. That's why I'm not a cartoonist, I guess -- squeezing it into three panels ain't easy.

  13. JamesNT says:

    My boss attempted to speak to me that way one time when he had some bad news for me about something.  I informed him that if he ever spoke to me like that again, I would walk out the door then and there - no two week notice - and that he should just be man enough to tell me bad news when it happens and as it is.

    Our relationship improved substantially after I told him that.

    JamesNT

  14. Zan Lynx says:

    Chris, speaking of closing and Christmas...

    I hate companies that decide it would spoil the holidays if they do layoffs before Christmas. Instead, they pretend all is great. Then people come back from vacation and get laid off, with the result that the vacation hours that they could have cashed in are wasted, plus many people spend a bit too much on Christmas and have credit card debt.

    Please managers, spoil the holiday instead.

  15. alegr1 says:

    @jz:

    I don't think it's a coincidence.

    [Seeing as the article was written two years ago, I would be more likely to say "coincidence." Either that, or my powers of clairvoyance are being wasted on software development. -Raymond]
  16. cheong00 says:

    Considering "A disturbingly high percentage of executive messages follow this pattern", I'd say that there's "a disturbingly high probability of coincidence" whenever in the year this post is being published.

  17. Martin Richter says:

    From my point of view this is "an American way" to do it.

    In Germany there is no introduction of how "great/beautiful" the past was.

    Even if there was a "great/beautiful" past, there is always a hint, that things will get better NOW with the new change...

    And even we know that things get worse, it will be better in the future ;)

  18. John Muller says:

    The Company is pleased to present the all employees a free, mandatory, screening of the classic film "Old Yeller" followed by an important annoucement about the future of The Company.

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