Best practices and common pitfalls to avoid for getting the most out of action items
Action items, as the name suggests, are tasks that need to be acted upon for the success of a project or team. Usually, these action items are a result of a discussion or meeting. For a detailed overview on action items and using them effectively for your project, read our guide on action items.
In this article, we will go over some best practices to keep in mind when capturing action items and mistakes that should be absolutely avoided.
Active voice eliminates ambiguity from task and clearly answers the two questions - “What needs to be done?” and “Who is doing it?”
Pro tip: If you are unable to distinguish between Active or Passive voice (it happens to the best of us!), use the “Zombie Test” i.e. if you can add ”by Zombies” at the end of the sentence, rephrase it to use active voice.
The marketing presentation will be prepared…(by zombies) → Passive Voice
Samantha will prepare the marketing presentation → Active Voice
Pilot two will be launched on 07/14… (by zombies) → Passive Voice
Team will launch pilot two on 07/14 → Active Voice
It is very common for people to co-own action items and holds true for scenarios where the task will be worked upon by multiple people. However, ownership should not be confused with execution. While the action item might require multiple people across many teams working on it, there should be one person who owns the action item and is accountable for its completion. In most cases, co-owning the action items or having multiple owners against an action item brings ambiguity in ownership and ironically relieves both the “co-owners” from being answerable for the task.
This is important to prevent any misalignment in expectations or scope of the task. COA or Criteria of Acceptance is used in agile methodology to push the business teams to visualize and share the end result or desired output. Defining “completion” forces the team to think through all aspects of the action item which might include scope of the task, resources required, relative prioritization, any exceptions etc. and highlight any issues that might require further discussion.
Every action item should be a bite sized task. You must try to refrain from capturing “blanket action items”. This might be a little tricky in some scenarios. If it's easier to manage, break down action items into subtasks. Let's take an example:
❌ Present marketing pitch on 07/17 (Owner: Patrick)
✅ Present marketing pitch on 07/17 (Owner: Patrick)
- Prepare pitch slides (Owner: Mary; ETA: 07/15)
- Analyze data for the pitch (Owner: Samantha; ETA: 07/10)
After the meeting is wrapped, with action items outlined and owners identified, circulate the meeting outcomes the team as early as possible... while the conversation is still fresh in all attendees' minds. One of the biggest hurdles to avoid post-meeting is comprehension in communication. Sharing outcomes early gives all the attendees an opportunity to review their respective tasks and clarify and questions without wasting too much time. Loopin simplifies this entire process for you. Loopin gives a shared view of meeting outcomes to all meeting attendees. Action items can be assigned and tracked without ever having to use any other tool.
While action items are a great way to drive projects forward. However, if not done correctly, they do not always lead to desirable results. Below are some of the top reasons why action items fail:
Meetings result in action items. Before the meeting gets over, asking the question, “Is everyone OK with where we ended up?”, gives attendees an opportunity to speak up in case they do not agree with the meeting outcomes. This also ensures that all attendees are aligned and agree on the action items and next steps. If this cannot be achieved before the meeting gets over, the meeting owner should own the action item to setup a follow up meeting to continue the discussion until alignment is gained.
One of the reasons for sharing detailed meeting notes or meeting minutes is to provide clarity on the action items and eliminate any ambiguity. However, failing to clearly articulate action items defeats that purpose. Moreover, not every action item can be acted upon immediately. In a scenario where the action item owner refers back to the task a few days after the meeting, the ambiguity of the action item and inability to recall the context might have unfavorable consequences. This invariably leads to project delays.
Every action item should have an owner. This drives accountability and a sense of ownership among the team members. Moreover, the task owner serves as the single person of contact for the for any follow ups on the action item.
Even though there might be alignment on meeting comes (action items and next steps) and defined ownership, the tasks might still not be delivered. One of the reasons for that can be incorrect prioritization. While the action items might be on a person’s to do list, they might not have visibility into when it would be completed or might not know when the task has to be completed for the success of the project. Hence, remember to clarify importance of the task and align on timelines in the meeting.
This is a common issue in teams juggling multiple tasks or when working with cross-functional stakeholders. Multi-tasking often result in task owners forgetting to complete an assigned action items. Changing work priorities may result in action item being de-prioritized. Well, this might be unavoidable in most situations. Regardless, it is critical to be communicated to the project owner for corrective measures and keeping the project on track. As a project owner, It is considered a good practice to follow up on action items or even send reminders to ensure timely delivery. Shameless plug - Loopin automates this process by sending reminders on upcoming tasks to respective task owners.
Alright, you made it to the very end! Now you're well equipped to handle action items and get the most of your meetings. Here's a quick summary for quick reference:
1. Use active voice to capture action items
2. Assign a single owner for every action item
3. Have a 'definition of done'
4. Capture action items at lowest granularity
5. Share meeting outcomes right after the meeting
1. Not gaining alignment on action items
2. Ambiguous action items or lack of context
3. Missing action item owner
4. Missing due dates
5. Not following up