How to create crystal clear action items

July 13th, 20215 min read
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It's the end of a successful project kickoff meeting and your team members are ready to move forward to execute everything that was decided in the meeting. But how do you know exactly what to do once the meeting is over? 

This is where clearly communicated action items come into play.

What is an action item?

An action item is a task that is created from a meeting with other stakeholders to move a project towards its goal. Think of them as action-oriented to-dos that help you achieve your project’s objectives. Action items can be part of a larger action plan or task list, and they’re just as crucial to project management as effective meetings are. 

Action items can help you track decisions made during a meeting. These meeting action items can take the form of a deliverable or an asset. They can vary from simple tasks, such as sending a follow-up email, to establishing the plan for a much longer project, such as creating a Gantt chart for a new advertising campaign. Use a meeting agenda to track what action items need to be done for clear next steps.

The 3 W's of clear action items

There are three key components to action items. These three components provide clarity on who is responsible for the item, what exactly needs to be done, and when it needs to be done.

Who

Who is responsible for this action item? If anybody has any questions surrounding this specific task, who should they go to? This is a good opportunity to use a RACI chart so that you know exactly who the task owner is and who else is involved in the decision making process.

Read: What is a project stakeholder analysis and why is it important?

What

What action is taking place based on the description of the task? Strong action items begin with verbs—there's no ambiguity about what needs to be done when the task name starts with an action itself. For example, instead of writing down “Content calendar” as an action item, try writing “Brainstorm content calendar topics.” In this example, there’s no ambiguity on what needs to happen with the content calendar because the verb “brainstorm” clearly describes what needs to be done. 

When writing the task, consider if there’s any context you can provide the task owner to complete the action item. Are there any important documents or reference materials the assignee needs in order to complete this task? Having all of the important information a task needs in one place is not only convenient, it also streamlines the work process. It limits the back and forth team members need to have to ensure the task gets done.

When

When do the action items from the meeting need to be completed? When you're setting deadlines, be sure to consider other project dependencies and the task owner's current workload. Is the deadline you're setting a realistic timeline for both the team and the project?

Examples of clear action items

Action items are critical, but learning how to clearly articulate what you need to do after a meeting can take practice. Here are a few examples of how other teams created their action items:

Engineering action item example

The development team has found a bug that needs to be patched. After discussing potential solutions in a team meeting, the team decides that Daniela will fix the bug, since she fixed a similar bug a few months ago. She’ll complete the patch by the next product update, which will happen in two weeks.

Action item: Patch bug.

  • Task owner: Daniela

  • Deadline: Two weeks from today.

HR action item example

The people team is looking to standardize their onboarding processes before more team members join within the next few months. The team decides to collaboratively complete an onboarding presentation outline. They set a due date for two weeks before the new hires start. From there, Kabir will complete the presentation slides based on that outline one week before the new hires begin.

Action item #1: Outline the onboarding process presentation. 

  • Task owner: The people team

  • Deadline: Two weeks before new hire starts

Action item #2: Complete new onboarding presentation deck based on the outline the team created

  • Task owner: Kabir

  • Deadline: One week before the new hires start

Design action item example

The marketing and design teams meet to share feedback on the first round of a brand redesign. The marketing team gives feedback on the early designs, and the design team will then have two weeks to incorporate the feedback discussed in the meeting.

Action Item: Edit round one of brand redesigns.

  • Task owner: Brand redesign team

  • Deadline: August 10—the next meeting date

What are the benefits of using action items?

If you're a project manager looking to track progress on your project, there are a few ways that monitoring action items can benefit your team.

Action items help keep projects organized

A good project manager will send out a list of action items after a meeting stakeholder to ensure that everyone is on the same page about next steps. Some project managers organize their action items based on meeting minutes or meeting notes as a way to categorize their tasks. They can clearly indicate what action items correspond to a specific talking point on the meeting agenda.

Action items keep team members accountable

When many decisions are made during one meeting, use action items to capture to-dos in real time as the meeting progresses. Having a dedicated person in charge of creating an action item list and following up with task owners after the meeting ensures that the entire team knows exactly what tasks they’re responsible for. 

Action items keep track of the work that's being done

Action item tracking is a helpful tool for managing your team’s workload. Tracking action items allows managers to easily understand what their team is working on, and if they have the bandwidth to take on more work. If your team has hourly workers or assigns work by time increments, such as agency work, you can track how long each action item takes to complete. By keeping track of regularly completed action items, you can use that information to assign similar projects in the future and know how many resources you need to complete the project.

Common mistakes when creating action items

When done well, action items can help your team's workflow, knock out to-dos on your task list, and accelerate your project progress. However, when action items aren’t clearly defined, it can cause major headaches. 

Here are a few common mistakes to avoid when creating action items:

Vague action items

When a task doesn’t have all of the information you need to complete it, you’re blocked from getting started on that work. Instead, you need to source information or follow up with stakeholders, which takes valuable time.  According to our research, knowledge workers are spending 60% of their time on work about work like this—meetings, status checks, and searching for info. Having a clearly defined "what" in the task eliminates confusion about what needs to be done, so you can prevent unnecessary back-and-forth between stakeholders.

Not setting a deadline

If you don’t set a deadline, tasks can be pushed off indefinitely to the point where it falls through the cracks. If an action item is essential to getting a project done, it’s crucial that you set a clear due date or deadline. An action item can quickly get lost if there’s no due date assigned to it.

Not assigning a task to a team member

If you don’t assign a task to a clear owner, they can get left behind. If you know something needs to get done and nobody volunteers to complete it, assign it to the person who is best equipped to do the work. If this person doesn’t have the capacity to take on this task, knowing your team’s current workload is a good way to find someone who does have the ability to get this action item completed.

Clearly defining the "who" can prevent tasks from getting left behind. As long as a task is assigned to somebody, then at least one person knows that it needs to get done.

Try workload management with Asana for free

Organize action items with Asana

Creating action items is simple, but sharing them with your team can be a struggle when work isn’t all in one place. This is where a good work management tool comes in handy.

A work management tool like Asana can help you and your team keep track of project tasks, meeting notes, and assets all in one place. You can take it even a step further and connect those tasks to strategic initiatives. Asana helps your team connect their day-to-day tasks to bigger company goals, clarifying why their work matters and what they should be working towards.

Looking to learn more about work management? Get an introduction to work management.

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