Picture this situation: You've just wrapped up a productive project meeting and are experiencing a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. However, the inevitable query arises: "What comes next?" How can you ensure that the project remains on track, that all members are in agreement and aware of their responsibilities?
The solution is straightforward: assign action items! By delegating specific tasks and setting clear expectations, you can maintain momentum and hold everyone accountable for their contributions to the project's success.
In this article, let's answer everything about action items and how to make them work for you.
What is an action item? And how does it help?
The term "Action Item" has been around since the 1960s and is commonly used in project management. But what does it mean? Simply put, an action item is a specific task that needs to be completed by one person. To make the most of action items, it's essential to understand what makes them effective. Let's explore this further:
1. Actionable Descriptions
Clear and concise instructions are crucial to avoid misunderstandings and facilitate practical work. It's important to use active verbs when describing the necessary action, as this emphasizes the importance of completing the task. For example, instead of stating, "The project plan needs to be reviewed," use "Revise the project plan according to feedback." to give explicit instructions and expectations for completion.
2. A Person In Charge
Every action item needs a champion—who takes ownership and ensures the task gets done. This allows for clear communication, accountability, and efficient execution of tasks. By assigning responsibility, there is no confusion about who is responsible for completing a task, and it becomes easier to track progress and identify potential issues.
3. Feasible Due Date
To ensure progress and keep the wheels turning, we need specific deadlines. Avoid vague timeframes such as "before our next meeting," as these can lead to confusion and delays. It's better if you can document the exact due dates. In this example, when is the next meeting? "January 12" is indeed better and also allows project managers and individuals to arrange tasks in chronological order.
You see, in the realm of Agile, they've discovered the secret sauce for success: keeping deadlines within a two-week timeframe. Why, you ask? It's all about staying nimble, adaptive, and responsive to change. Embrace the power of bite-sized tasks and quick turnarounds for maximum productivity.
Why are action items important?
When it comes to project management, using action items is a great way to make things clearer, keep everyone accountable, build teamwork, and manage risks. Action items help team members focus on their tasks, work together, and make the project journey smoother.
Action Items Promote Member's Accountability
One of the best things about action items is that they clearly define each team member's role and responsibilities. This makes everyone feel more involved and in charge of their work, knowing that what they do matters. By taking responsibility, tasks are done better, faster, and with more care.
Action Items Streamline Project Management
With action items in place, your project maintains its forward momentum. Each completed task acts as a stepping stone towards the overall goal, driving progress and preventing stagnation. This helps keep everyone on track and avoids confusion, making sure the project is completed on time.
Action Items Facilitate Communication and Collaboration
Working together and communicating effectively is also vital for a successful project. Clear task definitions mean that everyone knows what they need to do and how it fits into the bigger picture. On the other side, everyone can easily update tasks directly with the person in charge, avoiding situations where no one has an idea where the task is going, where the bottlenecks are, and work conflicts.
Action Items Enable Risk Management
Lastly, action items are great for managing risks. Clearly defined action items serve as early indicators, they enable informed decision-making, allowing for proactive risk mitigation strategies. With action items in place, you can prioritize tasks, allocate resources effectively, and make necessary adjustments to prevent burnout and unrealistic deadlines.
How to write good action items (with examples)
We've all been in those meetings or brainstorming sessions where we get super pumped up and ideas are flying around. But then, when it's time to get back to work, it's easy to forget what was actually agreed upon. That's why it's so important to have someone take notes and identify the action items. These little steps can make a huge difference in increasing employee productivity and moving onward. To help you craft action items like a pro, follow these guidelines:
The 3W Rule: [what item] will be done by [who], by [when]
- What: Get straight to the point by describing the specific action that needs to be done. Use a strong verb to kick it off.
- Who: Clearly assign responsibility by identifying the person or team accountable for the action item. This ensures that everyone knows who's in charge.
- When: Give it a deadline. Setting a timeframe for completing the action item creates a sense of urgency and helps prioritize tasks.
Examples of clear action items:
- Create a social media campaign for a new feature - Wendy - 20 January
- Prepare a report for the website conversion of last month - Kallie - 5 February
- Interview 5 users to have their feedback for product A - Tom - 15 March
Get explicit and specific with action items
For action items to really work, they need to be crystal clear and easy to follow. It would be a great help from project owners to define action items in simple language, leaving no room for confusion.
Most of the time, your team won't ask again for clarification because they are afraid of showing incompetency or inadequacy by asking for help. Don't let assignees have to play the guessing game or waste time searching for their tasks in hour-long meeting transcripts.
Break it Down and Prioritize
Big projects can be overwhelming, and action items can quickly pile up. While there is no fixed rule for how small a task should be, when breaking down projects into action items, you can consider what steps are necessary to achieve the desired outcomes, how many joint-force required to complete a mission, and how long to complete them is reasonable. This approach encourages incremental progress, rather than being paralyzed and burn out.
If you're searching for a tool to assist with identifying subtasks for a project, try Small Steps. This innovative tool employs AI technology to generate a comprehensive list of tasks necessary to achieve the desired outcome that you input.
Additionally, not all action items are created equal. Let's prioritize them based on urgency and importance to focus the energy on the tasks that will have the greatest impact. Try to use labels like "High," "Medium," or "Low" to help team members understand which tasks to focus their energy on first.
Use AI to capture action items from meetings
Attending a meeting, whether in person or remotely, can be so much easier when you have AI-powered tools to help you summarize the important stuff. Some cool options to check out are Fireflies.ai, Otter.ai, or TL;DV. They make it really easy to extract the most essential details including highlights, decisions, and next steps besides the full transcript.
A useful practice is to review the meeting summaries soon after the meetings, make any necessary changes, and promptly incorporate them into your team's planning tools or task trackers. This way, you can effectively wrap up the discussion and begin execution.
Common Mistakes in Writing Action Items
Using action items in project management is necessary. When writing action items, there are some common mistakes that make them ineffective:
Lack of Specifics
The action item should not be too vague. If you're not crystal clear about what needs to be delivered, you're setting yourself up for unqualified results. Avoid the confusion and ensure everyone's on the same page by providing clear and specific description of an Action Item.
- Weak: Develop the website
- Strong: Design the homepage layout for the website, including sections for products, about us, and contact information - Designer - Friday
Too Complicated To Be Executed in a Single Action
Let's face it, some things require frequent review and alignment. When an action is too complex to be handled by a single task, it can impact the overall progress and quality. So, it's crucial to stay vigilant and ensure that all the pieces fit together seamlessly.
- Weak: Conduct a customer satisfaction survey, analyze the results, identify key areas for improvement, and propose an action plan by the end of the month
- Strong: Conduct a customer satisfaction survey for our service and present the key learnings - Marketing Executive - By the next meeting
If it’s big enough to create a separate project plan, it’s not an action item. Action items are all about those bite-sized, manageable tasks that move the needle forward. So, let's keep things focused and prioritize those action items that will make a tangible impact on our project's progress.
- Weak: Improve employee engagement
- Strong: Propose a 6-month action plan to improve employee engagement based on the survey result - HR Specialist - by next Monday
Few could deny that "Do more with less" is so empowering. However, while the intention behind this approach is to maximize productivity and efficiency, the pressure to accomplish more in limited time and resources can have detrimental effects. Think of how many times your project has been delayed because of underperformance outcomes and rework. Trying to achieve too much in too little time and resources is more likely to make team members stressed, exhausted, and overwhelmed with the constant pressure to perform. To avoid these problems, take a step back and assess your team's workload and abilities before setting deadlines. You may need to break down tasks into smaller steps or bring in extra help to get the job done right.
Examples of Strong Action Items
Let’s take a look at some real-life examples of action items in different departments. By exploring these examples, you'll gain practical insights into how action items can be effectively implemented across various areas of your organization.
Marketing Team with the “Social Media Campaign Launch” project:
- Develop a content calendar, outlining blog topics, social media posts, and email newsletters - Marketing Lead - Complete by June 30
- Research and create a list of Top 50 influencers in the market - Marketing Executive - June 20
- Create key visuals for the campaign - Designer - July 10
Sales Team with "Sales Efficiency Enhancement" project:
- Conduct and a competitor analysis to identify unique selling points and advantages, present to the team - Sales Analyst - July 31
- Reach out to 20 leads and record progress in CRM - Sales Representatives - June 23
- Organize a sales training workshop to enhance negotiation and closing skills - Sales Trainer - third week of July.
HR team with the “Employee Onboarding Process Improvement” project:
- Develop an onboarding checklist - HR Specialist - May 30
- Implement an online system to automate paperwork and orientation materials. - HR Digitalization - May 30
- Update orientation materials and create a welcome package - L&D Executive - June 05
Operations Team with the “Optimizing Inventory Management” project:
- Implementing a barcode scanning system - Operations Manager - October 15
- Develop a quality assurance policy - Quality Assurance Team - October 10
- Develop training materials and resources for the safety training sessions, including presentations, handouts, and quizzes - Operations Supervisor - October 5
Finance Department with the “Streamline Financial Process” project:
- Research available software solutions that can help automate the invoicing process - Receivable Specialist - September 1
- Conduct a cost analysis and identify opportunities for cost savings - Procurement Specialist - September 5
- Update the company's expense reimbursement policy, send to CEO for approval - Finance Manager - September 8
Product Team with the “Feature Enhancement for Mobile App” project:
- Conduct user research to identify pain points - Product Manager - July 20
- Collaborate with the developer team to implement feature enhancements - Developer - July 30
- Perform user testing and gather feedback to iterate and refine the enhancements - Product Manager- August 3
Remember, action items are the driving force behind progress, accountability, and project success. In addition to the 3W rule, don't forget to tailor them to your organization's unique needs and adjust them to fit your available resources and capabilities.
How to track your action items
Tracking action items is crucial to ensure their progress and completion throughout the project. Here are some simple steps to help you effectively track your action items:
Implement a Project Tracking Method
Don't let your team work in isolation, be transparent and share action items where your team tracks projects. Make it a seamless part of your meeting workflow for maximum effectiveness.
A research platform reported that project management tools are used to manage 77% of high-performing projects, and out % of those plans, 40% of them successfully deliver the expected results.
If you don’t know where to start, see Top 11 Planning Tools in 2023 that allow you to create a centralized action item list. Alternatively, you can use a spreadsheet, a shared document, or even a dedicated whiteboard - just make sure it's all in one place.
Assign a Project Owner
Every project needs a hero: the Project Owner. They step up, take charge, and keep everything running smoothly. The Project Owner is like the captain of a ship, ensuring everyone understands their goals and responsibilities while keeping a close eye on progress. The Project Owner can be anyone with project management skills, such as a team manager or team member.
So, if you're embarking on a new project, don't forget to appoint your trusty Project Owner to guide the way and lead your team to success. With them at the helm, you can sail through challenges and conquer the project seas like true champions!
Review and Update Regularly
Common pitfalls in project management are poor communication and neglecting follow-up.
It's important to clearly communicate responsibilities and ensure that team members are held accountable for their assigned action items. Regular check-ins should be conducted to discuss progress, address any issues, and provide support where necessary.
Tracking systems should be updated regularly to stay on top of each item's status - whether it's completed, in progress, or requires attention. That way, all stakeholders are kept in the loop and stay on the same page.
If you're in need of a team check-in tool, you may want to consider using a plug-in like Lexi Daily on Slack. Adopting such a straightforward and conscientious working practice within your team can enhance productivity and enable the team to celebrate small wins along the way.
Common Questions about Action Items
❓Is an action item the same as a task or a to-do?
It is common to wonder if "action item" is just a fancier way of saying "task." However, there are actually some key differences between the two terms. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a task is "a piece of work to be done," while an action item (or action point) is more specific as "a job for a particular person or group to do following a meeting, a report, or similar events."
One of the most important things to note about action items is that they always have a specific person or group who is accountable for completing them by a specific deadline. It indicates a higher level of accountability. Additionally, while action items are bite-sized, they are always directly connected to the ultimate goals of the entire project.
❓When do we need action items? And when can we keep it simple as a to-do list?
Knowing when to use action items versus a simple to-do list can make a difference in project management. To navigate this decision, consider their purposes and complexity.
Use action items when you need specific, actionable steps that contribute directly to the project's success.
For example, you're planning a team offsite event. Your list of action items might look something like this:
- Action Item 1: Book the venue by Friday - John
- Action Item 2: Create the event agenda by Monday - Sarah
- Action Item 3: Arrange transportation for the team by Wednesday - Lisa
On the other hand, for routine tasks that don’t require extensive coordination or multiple stakeholders, a simple to-do list can suffice. Let's say you need to order office supplies, your to-do list might include ordering printer paper and purchasing pens and notepads.
❓Who is in charge of defining action items?
The responsibility of defining action items typically lies with the project manager or the person leading the project. However, in many situations, assistants (PA), stakeholders, and team members may also be tasked with noting down action items.
- Project Manager: The project manager oversees the project's progress, identifies milestones, sets the rhythm, and assigns tasks to the team members. Their organizational wizardry keeps everything running smoothly.
- Team Members: Allowing team members to define their own action items can increase accountability and confidence in the deliverables. From developers to designers, marketers to analysts, each member's input is valuable and contributes to a comprehensive list of action items that drives the project forward with enthusiasm!
- Stakeholders: The insights from stakeholders are gold! These esteemed individuals, whether they be clients, department heads, or other key players, provide a fresh perspective and invaluable input. Their involvement helps shape the project's direction and identify critical tasks that drive success.
Action items are the building blocks of successful project management. By differentiating them from tasks or to-do lists, defining them clearly, and tracking them diligently, you can propel your projects forward.