The Myth of Delegating Responsibility via Email


Yes! Yes! the post title has a contradiction, which is deliberate…please bear with me and read on.

Dropping the ball

1. Sales team requesting for special help from the product management team

Mail from a sales team member Maria to the product team member, Ravi
“Dear Ravi,  – Can you please create a comparison document between our product and the ZDF product and send it across to Mr. Sen of AcmeCorp asap. Your team is in the best position to create this since you have in depth competitive knowledge. – Cheers, Maria”

After a few days, when Mr. Sen followed up for the comparison document (He must desperately want your product to be following up for co-laterals from your ultra-responsive sales team), Maria exclaimed in surprise
“But I thought Ravi would have sent it to you. I had sent him a mail asking him to. let me check and Revert”

Angry mail from Maria to Ravi, with a CC to Ravi’s boss.
“Dear Ravi – Please explain why you didnt send the comparison document to Mr. Sen as per my instructions. The customer is very upset at this delay and lapse. Its shocking to have the customer follow up for documents he had asked for. This demonstrate how poor our response is. – Maria”

Response from Ravi.
“Dear Maria – Ooops!! when I saw your mail, I was kind of tied up with some other activities and the mail went out of site. I do apologize for this. I’ll get cracking on it right away. – regards, Ravi.”

2. A few escalation mail (amongst about 200 mail received daily) to the Service Manager.

The Service Manager’s response to each:

“Dear Mr. Customer – I’ll check on this with my team and revert by tomorrow. – regards, SM”

The next day the Inbox lands a few more and some reminders from the customers about their unattended complaints.

3. Minutes of the meeting being circulated among the attendees

4. Boss questioning a direct report.

Boss – “What happened about the meeting at Acmecorp? “
Ravi – “Hmm, I had sent a mail to Kavi to meet Acmecorp since he is in Delhi itself. Looks like I will have to followup.”
Boss – “But the issue is important and should have been attended before the last month end. We are late on this.”
Ravi – “I know, but I had instructed Kavi well before time. I would have to pull him for this lapse.”

I could go on writing scores of examples (several of which I myself encounter on a daily basis) of such hanging conversations, leading to delayed deliveries, misunderstanding among team members and eventually negative business impact. This is what we call “Dropping the ball”

So who is responsible for the outcome of the conversation?

Lets assume that Maria is running a sales process to work towards closing opportunities and at some stage needs help from a product team member. This maybe an exception. Under normal circumstances, the marketing material is well stocked and available easily.

Once Maria fans out the work, and gets busy with other opportunities, this issue is more likely to be off the radar. It would come to fore, only when Mr. Sen demands the document he asked for.

It should be noted that Maria is the owner of the work and is wholly responsible to deliver the document. Its upto her to ensure Ravi completes it on time. If Ravi cannot do it on time, she has to figure out alternatives. Whereas, the entire conversation above is about blaming Ravi for not completing the document on time.

Who tracks commitments and ensures they are kept?

To a lot of mail, the Service Manager simply writes a line that he would check and revert by tomorrow or on a particular date. These are again exceptions since under normal circumstances, where the customer is well served, there would be no escalations.

Once the SM responds to one mail and moves to the next and the next, until he clears his Inbox, he is more likely to have forgotten the number of commitments.

A commitment is an unsaid bond of Integrity between the two parties and is expected to be honored by the Initiator.

Who will take action on a mail work on the various different aspects of the written matter?

MOMs (Minutes of Meetings) put on record the happenings, but are many a times not clear directions for who will do what. And if there is anything to do.

There is an unsaid, unclear assumption by the sender that the various people receiving the mail have the necessary context and behavior patterns to recognize that the MOM is also giving their work some direction and setting the expectation for delivery from the recipients. But does this really happen?

So what are the various types of official conversations we engage in?

So it seems that in our daily official work using multiple channels (verbal, email, chat, social media), we broadly have the following types of conversations (I believe all conversations fit into one of these types, if you have some others, please do let me know)

  • Simply share information which doesn’t expect any response or responsive action. (JFYI-Just For Your Information notes, Forwards, Alerts, Reports , Thank you notes, Vacation replies, etc)
  • Have an ongoing conversation about a subject which simply is to collectively build knowledge, refine the idea and may or may not conclude in actionables for either parties. (Ideating, Feedback, Working out the concepts, details about projects/Initiatives, etc)
  • Request for help from a colleague and/or external agency (Instructing a colleague, Lodging a complaint, Request for comment, etc)
  • Make commitments to a colleague or external agency for completing the promised action by a certain date and time (Response from Customer Support, response to an request for help, deferring the action due, etc.)
  • Capture happenings and events as an official record for action and future reference. (Minutes of meetings, sending official documents like orders, quotations, agreements, confirmations, approvals, etc.)

So how can we “hold” the ball instead of “dropping it” while still having these unstructured conversations

There is no disputing the value of email or talking in having such INTERACTIONS/CONVERSATIONS or sending information from one person to another or from one person to many people. However these conversations may remain just conversations unless the sender has a way to track the expectation from the recipient and the receiver has appropriate systems in place to act on these inputs.

Unless Maria has a tracking sheet or TODO list, which records that she has fanned out the work to Ravi and is expecting it by a specified time, and this tracking sheet is reviewed daily by Maria as a practice, and the items dont go off the list until they are complete, the ball is likely to be dropped.

Unless the Service Manager flags those pending conversations for action later and/or puts calendar reminders for the commitments, the commitments are likely to be compromised.

Unless the one to many communcation is clear with instructions to named people, the message is likely to remain vague. This would need to be combined with a system like Maria uses.

Unless Ravi can track the fact that he has fanned out a meeting to Kavi, and Kavi tracks that as an item/event to be attended to, the chance of that being missed is high (thanks to high level of interruptions)

So how do I manage my conversations

When I observe my way of working (also considering the large number of emails which make their way to my Inbox), I have developed this habit of scanning my mailbox 2-3 times a day by :

  1. Marking a mail as READ without opening based on sender and subject, if I am convinced it has no value to me at all at this point in time.
  2. Respond/Redirect mail ON THE SPOT, which don’t need too much analysis, design, review etc. Typically approvals, acknowledgements, re-directs, shares etc. This means I dont have to revisit this and the task is complete.
  3. For mail which need some work or review with my team, make a commitment with a date and time and RECORD THIS COMMITMENT in my TODO list/Calendar (I am old world guy and a traditional TODO list in notepad works best for me :-))
  4. For the projects which I am working on, I may fan out tasks to my team members, partners, external agencies, etc and I RECORD THE INSTRUCTION in my tracking sheet/project planner so that I can look at them daily and follow up in case the “ball has been dropped”. This way I stay on top of the deliverables and its my responsibility.

Hence to put it simply my email box is NOT my workbench. Instead my TODO list, Calendar and Project planning sheets are my workbench. Email is just a carrier.

If the sender and the recipient can use these simple ways to track the work allocated, the benefits cannot even be measured.

On a larger scale how does this work

While the methods discussed above will work quite well for individuals, what should we do for email ids which are contact points for very large number of conversations like the customer support email id, sales email id, etc.

The most popular and most reliable way to handle this is to deploy a ticketing system which is hooked into the email system.

Thus the customer sends an email, which is automatically converted into a ticket with a unique id, the support staff have a special common interface to access these tickets, respond to them from the ticketing interface and also collate all back and forth responses into the same ticket to track the entire conversation, which may span across days. Thus inflow and outflow happens over email but the conversations are collated and tracked in a database and accessed via a special interface.


Sending out an email or a giving verbal instruction does not ensure that the task will be done, even if both the parties are highly committed. A system is required, which is more than the email inbox,  to support their functioning.

At the end of the day, the originator of the work is the person whose responsibility it is to see that the work is completed or the desired outcome of the conversation is achieved.

You can never really delegate responsibility! (the contradiction in the blog post title)

The medium of the conversation then is only about deciding the best, most suitable form to transport the information, present it and build understanding.

I would love to hear from my friends on their own work experience with conversations.

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