I’m on a plane heading for an all-day alignment workshop with a new client. We’re going to hash through dozens of questions, generate a bunch of answers and hopefully resolve an untold number of ambiguities over the course of our dialogue.
But since this meeting will be the first time that most of the team has met – let alone worked together – there’s a good chance that we‘ll generate more questions than we can answer. This fact highlights our team’s need to capture and follow up on a clear list of “Action Items” over the next few days and weeks.
In today’s post, I’d like to share a list of tips on how to write good action items and use them to produce results with your team.
First a Definition: My working definition of an Action Item is:
Something that cannot be readily answered in the current context so we agree to take it “off line”.
And the List: Most of us use action items in our daily work. I have a list of ten tips to make them more effective. Here are the first five:
- Write them down.
- Keep responsibility clear and focused.
- Set a date.
- Verify they’re necessary and sufficient.
- Don’t fumble the hand-off.
… And the Details: Here’s a bit more description regarding each of the tips:
1. Write them down. This first one seems obvious, but it can be surprising how many times groups will meet and talk… and talk… and talk… without committing their commitments to paper. Whether you capture them on a white board or flip chart during the meeting, Action Items become much more “real” when they’re documented in front of the team. Make sure to transfer them into written notes as well so they don’t get forgotten or re-interpreted after the fact.
2. Keep the responsibility clear and focused. Each action item should stand on its own. Ideally, each task can be done by one person – but at the very least remember that the fewer people who need to get together in order to get the work done, the better.
3. Set a date: Let those who need the result decide when the action item needs to be completed in order for the team to maintain momentum. This can be critical if one person’s task is a prerequisite for another team members’ work. If it can wait, be clear about how long it can wait, but resist the urge to leave tasks without deadlines. After all: if it really doesn’t matter when it gets done, is it really worth doing?
4. Verify they’re necessary & sufficient: The person who needs the results can also tell you if what you’ve written will satisfy that need – so ask them: “Will that give you what you need?”. I sometime draw out more hidden tasks by asking “Does anyone else need anything related to this?” Finally, optimize the list by making sure all of your action items are really needed. Sometimes you can combine them or scratch trivial ones off the list entirely.
5. Don’t fumble the hand-off: As part of the review, make sure the person on the hook for each item publicly acknowledges what they have agreed to take on. This is usually a quick step, but once in a while this process will lead to a bit more clarifying conversation. If you get feedback like “I’m not sure that’s MINE to do…”, make sure the work sticks to someone else before you move on. This process also helps reinforce the commitments team members make to each other.
All teams run into situations where unanswered questions need to be tracked to resolution. Keeping good action items can help to make sure these critical tasks don’t fall through the cracks or get left on a white board when the lights go out and everyone heads on to the next meeting.
PS: tomorrow I will share five more tips from this list.
Questions for Chatter
- Have you seen action items used particularly well on a project? What factors contributed to that success?
- What pitfalls make action items less effective?