No Follow-up Please!
To minimize the tyranny of follow up, do ‘good’ work!
by Indrapal Singh
20-25% of our time is spent in reminders and follow ups

This year Bombay Management Association (BMA) is hosting twelve sessions, one every month, on the theme of ‘Celebrating Indian Managers who made a difference.’ In August 2021, BMA celebrated the life and times of Dr. Sharu Ragnekar. He had an illustrious professional career from which he retired at the age of 50 years. He took this decision consciously to devote the rest of his life to developing managers. He would teach at several business schools and conduct executive programs throughout the year from different platforms. He was a prolific writer and has written several articles and books in addition to producing more than 25 instructional videos. His contribution in the field of management and development is considered remarkable and was conferred upon the BMA’s Lifetime Achievement Award, some years ago. Sharu and I knew each other well as both of us were associated with organizations such as BMA, AIMA, IMC, ISTD and so on. Also, he had conducted several training sessions at G&B in the 70s and 80s.

Dr Ragnekar had a unique method of imparting training which was lighthearted, direct and devoid of managerial jargon or pomposity of any kind.

He would communicate in simple words with plenty of anecdotes, stories and shayaris. Incidentally, he had learnt Urdu to indulge deeply into shayaris and appreciate the beauty of this language.

In one of the sessions on managerial effectiveness, he had remarked that our work cultures do not promote productivity and much time is wasted in performing nonvalue added work. Generally, people are not used to doing work in time and of quality that is required. Often the work is incomplete or delayed necessitating frequent follow ups.

In his opinion, this was so endemic that follow up had become a part of the routine work itself! A highly avoidable waste of time. He had added, there were countries where work culture was such that no follow up was necessary to get things done. He had urged us participants to analyze our written messages, phone calls and meetings to find out how much time was spent on follow ups. In his view, it could be as high as 20-25% of the working time. To drive the point home, he had narrated a personal experience, which I reproduce below. He said, “I was visiting Japan and was with our host organization to explore business opportunities of mutual interest. I had bought something which I wanted to send to India right away. I asked my host as to how should I go about it and he replied, “Please give it to my secretary and she will send it.” Next morning, upon reaching the office, I handed over the parcel to the secretary and requested her to ship the parcel to India. With great courtesy, she mumbled something which I presumed was her agreeing to do the same. Being used to following up, I walked up to her in the coffee break and checked if she had sent the parcel. Once again, she nodded and said something which I could not understand fully. But I took her response as what I did previously.

Having a lingering doubt and not sure of her having understood my instructions fully, once again, post lunch, I walked up to her and inquired if she had sent the parcel. This time, she definitely looked flustered and uncomfortable. I did not know what to say and I walked into my host’s cabin. After a small talk, with a sense of embarrassment written on his face, my host asked, “Why are you harassing my secretary? I replied, “ I was doing nothing of the sort and was making sure that she had understood my instruction fully for sending the parcel to India. Also, I was following up on her to make sure that it was sent before the end of the day.” It is here, what my host said that shook me out of my wits. He said, “Your frequent follow up is upsetting her because she takes this as a reflection on her capabilities! She takes this as a personal insult. In fact, she told me that she would consider committing suicide if she was thought to be a poor performer that required frequent reminders, especially by the guest.” I rushed to her and apologized profusely and assured her that my follow-ups were in no way reflected on her capabilities. I was just doing whatever I was used to doing in India to get things done. My host also joined me in conveying this message to her. Now, let us contrast this incident with what is happening at our workplaces. Can we get anything done without a follow up?

Even today, if we were to analyse our communications, we will find that 20-25% of our time is spent in reminders and follow ups.

The question here is how may we change our work cultures so that follow up becomes minimal or better still, redundant? I suppose the change must begin with all of us. We must learn to do our work in time as promised and of quality that meets the requirements of the recipients. We must commit ourselves to doing our work in a better way. I believe this seemingly small commitment of changing the way we work can go a long way in boosting our collective efficiency, building harmonious relationships and above all, experiencing ourselves, the joy of doing good work. So, let us start collecting data on the parameters outlined to make conscious changes in the way we work. You will definitely find these changes rewarding.