To Do and Not Done

Good research starts with a good question. Dwight Mihalicz wanted to know why so many managers start the day with a ‘to do’ list and end the day with a ‘not done’ list. That’s a question worth asking.

Mihalicz’s consulting background (he is president of Effective Mangers) led him to suspect managers needed to do a better job of delegating work to subordinates. He hypothesized that lack of clarity in authority and accountability was undermining effective delegation. However, the data was not there to prove it; accountability is not well covered in the management literature. Mihalicz and the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa launched a pilot study and got responses from nearly 100 managers on an detailed survey comprised of 94 questions.

The questions focused on these areas:

  • Clarity of accountability – Is it clear what has been delegated to you and what is a priority?
  • Felt accountability – What do you feel you are accountable for and what are the consequences? In particular which stakeholders do you feel accountable to: Your boss? Teammates? Customers? Other departments?
  • Workflow – Does work flow smoothly through the organization?
  • Role conflict – To get your work done, do you have to enter into conflict with others?
  • Interdependence – How much do you rely on others to get your work done?
  • Organizational learning – How adept is the organisation at learning from mistakes and developing new knowledge?
  • Effectiveness of corporate support systems – E.g. budgeting, HR, performance management
  • Manager’s Manager Capability. How well do your managers feel they are being managed?

The main findings were:

  • Managers feel their effectiveness is poor. Managers said they are working at about 60% effectiveness: they spend just over 20% of their time doing work that is not part of their job and they spend nearly 20% of their time doing work that could be delegated to an administrative support position.
  • Lack of clarity is one likely cause of ineffectiveness. There was a high correlation between clarity of accountably and how managers perceive their own effectiveness. Correlation may or may not be a result of causation. However, based on the data and an understanding of work it is reasonable to hypothesize that lack of clarity is one of the significant causal factors for managerial ineffectiveness.
  • Felt accountability was rated higher than clarity of accountability. People feel accountable to do things, however they may not be the right things.
  • Role conflict was likely a cause of ineffectiveness. Role conflict has a strong negative correlation with effectiveness.


When you describe the frustrating path from a to do list to a not done list many managers say “You’ve just described my life.” The research suggests managers can improve effectiveness by clarifying accountabilities and authorities when they delegate work. To put it in everyday language, people need to know what to do, by when, and at what quality. Also, the better everyone understands context, the better they will be at setting the right priorities.

Communication is time consuming and can be tedious. We wish others would just ‘get it’. The evidence indicates that people are not ‘getting it’ and that taking more time to clarify context and goals would save time overall because subordinates would focus on the right things, their felt accountability would match their real accountability.

The accountability and authority framework needs to be established for work that flows down the organization, and also for work that flows across the organization. The evidence shows that role conflict hurts effectiveness; clarifying cross functional accountabilities and authorities reduces that conflict.