"The ball is not in my court" syndrome

So you have done your bit and are waiting for someone else to act? Maybe a document or an email or a phone call or a meeting or a "walk-through"? ... and also it is clear to your colleagues and your manager/boss that the "ball is not in your court" (the classic CYA or "cover your ass" activity that we all do to survive in this big bad world)?

Before you banish the task/activity temporarily from your brain's random access memory (RAM or the DRAM, if you may) on account of waiting for someone else to act, you should ask yourself:
  • Have you done enough and is there absolutely nothing that you can do to make progress on the task even when the ball is not in your court?
  • There is an ideal/perfect/sensible way to go about doing things and then there is always a crude way. Would it be of any value if you were to make some progress in a less-than-ideal manner ( for e.g. take action without waiting for the approval)? Of course it is wise not to do disturb the water too often and definitely not for trivial matters but what if this task happens to be on the "critical path" of a bigger objective? Is not worthy of a speedier progress even if it comes at the cost of rubbing someone the wrong way?
  • Did the ball really 'automatically' roll (because of say, inertia) in to someone else's court or did you push it? Lets be honest - did you pass the buck to that guy you never liked? Maybe to teach him a lesson? ;) ... or maybe were you just having a terribly busy day and you just couldn't help it. It's actually understandable and perfectly normal for you to do so, but if you have some time at hand shouldn't you give the monster a second chance?
  • Did you push the ball in someone else court because you were forced to? Maybe it was because of your upper management or due a 'well defined process'... And being the nice person that you are, you did what you had to do. After sometime if you happen to notice that the task is still stuck and is gasping for some attention, don't you think you should go back and talk to your boss about it? Maybe persuade him/her to give you the green signal to act? You can't possibly let that sit on your conscience, can you?
  • Lets talk about the "other person". Is that person aware that she (let's assume its a "she") needs to act based on your email? Were you clear on what you need? Or.. are you sure that she is not on leave (without an "out of office" message on her Outlook) or maybe moved to a different department? 
  • If the other person is indeed "alive" and is aware of what you need from her- it boils down to how she prioritizes this extra work that you pushed to her. Is she aware how important that document is for you? Or realistically speaking - does/should she even care? Does it figure on her 'must act' list or 'let me do this later' list? ... Given your 'situation with her' (and we know there is always some sort of situation) - do you think you should remind her over a phone call or maybe walk over to her desk or send her a 'gentle reminder' email ... or bug the hell out of her till she helps you out?
There is a reason why some companies are able to innovate year after year and some lose out despite having the best human/technological resources. There are always some people or groups of people who are motivated to go the extra mile and there are some who just "sit on tasks". I have a feeling a lot of that has to do with leaders defining to what extent 'ball is not in my court' argument is acceptable. How long is it okay for me to wait before I walk up to the other guy and ask - "Did you get my message about that ... ?". Of course it is polite to wait and give the people some space to take their own time. It also might be the right protocol to send just a gentle reminder over email instead of a phone call. But protocols/rules have an expiry date. Once that has passed, you might want to get more assertive instead of just doing what you do all the time. Special situations need special rules, as they say.
Personally, I am wary of people who like to follow rules all the time (sometimes they come in the mask of sincere and hard working people). Most of the time they care only about the "letter of the law" and not the "spirit of the law". It is a classic way to shrug responsibility and accountability. When hit by failure, these are the people who come up with arguments like "but I did follow the process" ... instead of  "it's my fault, I should have known better". To me - "Oh, I did what you told me to do!" is pretty close to saying "I have no brains and I can't  or don't want to think on my own". 

Don't get me wrong - it is okay to push the ball or let it automatically roll into someone else's court. You can't possibly be proactive all the time. But if you think about it - most of the times there is a lot you can do while you wait for the other person to act. Or even better, if you tried hard enough, you are likely to find a way around bottlenecks and might be able to pick up the ball yourself without anybody's help. It usually sets the right kind of standards and expectations with the people you work with, even if they sign your pay cheque at the end of the month


  1. I am not sure who this post is aimed at. If at government officials, it is understandable. Certainly in private sector if people are not proactive on activities in the critical path, there is only one way for them. Out.

  2. Thank you for your comment Anurag. The post is not intended at any particular industry or sector. It is actually aimed at making people and groups of people proactive and not let them hide behind rules/protocols etc. Setting the right expectations (irrespective of your position in your company)with the people around you is the key to excellence. Expect more and deliver more.

  3. Good article Mr. Roy. Definitely worth sharing... I would like to tweet the link to some of my team members...

  4. Thank you Saibal. Good to know you liked it.

  5. Anonymous16.1.13

    I like this article too. . somebody told me just yesterday.. we have achieved in half the time what our elders achieved.. thats food for thought !

    1. Thank you for your comment!