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What is an action item? Your guide to wrangling tasks

March 28, 2022 - 20 min read

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What are action items, and why should I use them?

What are examples of good action items?

Tips for writing action items

How to write action items for other people

Following up on action items

How many times has this happened? You're coming to the end of a meeting for an important initiative. The discussion was productive, energy high.

But time is up. You leave the meeting not quite clear about who is doing what. Or what's expected of you to keep the ball rolling.

Importantly, you don't know your action items and neither does anyone else.

Of course, you'll take action. But, you might be duplicating efforts with another team member. You all have a lot on your plates. Lack of clarity on responsibilities and timelines makes it hard to prioritize. 

If you're a leader or manager, you don't want your team members to have this confusion. 

Every new project involves identifying and completing tasks for it to be successful. Often, some tasks can be broken down into individual action items to simplify the process for everyone involved.

By dividing the task up into an action item list, each of your employees has a clear understanding of their role. This allows for a smooth workflow through the different levels of your company and maximizes efficiency.

Let’s explore what good action items are, how to write them, and how to implement them in your company.

What are action items, and why should I use them?

The best way to understand action items is to think of all of the different components that are required to complete a task, from the first email that needs to be sent to the final delivery of the product to your client.

Use of action items helps bring clarity to how different parts of a project come together and who owns them. Clarity empowers the team

Every stage of the process will involve different people on your team doing a specific action. When this process is not well-coordinated, this can lead to lost productivity. It also leads to frustration and hurts employee engagement.

When you consider that 44% of projects are delayed or incomplete due to poor communication, it becomes clear how important it is to have a reliable system in place. Action items allow for effective communication within teams, leading to better teamwork and coordination.

team-members-discussing-action-items

Action items’ meaning goes further than simply generating a to-do list of things that need to be done. They offer an all-in-one guide to completing the task. This means that every team member involved in the project has a clear understanding of what they need to do and when they need to do it.

Action items help the manager and the team have visibility to progress. They can quickly see the implications if one task falls behind schedule.

This allows for even the biggest projects to be divided up into manageable sections. Creating a list of smaller tasks makes the whole project less intimidating and easier to complete. It also helps motivate your team by giving them an understanding of how they fit into the process. 

future-minded-leader-report

What are examples of good action items?

Let’s look at a real-world example to understand better what an action item is.

Imagine that your company has decided that its primary focus needs to be building its online brand awareness this year.

This may be a decision made by management. But it needs to be communicated clearly to the rest of the company. It’s no good having pie-in-the-sky ideas that remain at the management level.

Each employee needs to know what their role will be in building your brand visibility. The more clearly this is communicated to them, the more productive they can be.

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So how do you translate ‌big ideas into practical daily tasks? By creating a list of action items and delegating them to the appropriate people.

In this example of building online brand awareness, a few action items could be:

Action item

Owner

Due date

Notes

Build Instagram presence by beginning A/B testing on voice and content

Michelle

01/31/2022

The goal is to increase our following from 10,400 to 11,960. Need to make a recommendation on which style to adopt.

Create social media content calendar for the next six months

Emma

06/15/2022

Content calendar must include date, images/videos, captions, and relevant hashtags

Create a list of guest bloggers to reach out to for collaboration

Louis

03/25/2022

Guest bloggers must be relevant to our industry

Craft two different email and Instagram DM templates to reach out to guest bloggers

Louis

03/31/2022

These will be used for A/B testing to assess which template is more effective

Schedule a meeting with the SEO team to discuss Google ranking

Thomas

02/11/2022

Do a SWOT analysis to assess if there are opportunities to increase our ranking and what we need to do

Increase Facebook ads spending from $5 per day to $10 per day

Aliyah

02/31/2022

Our monthly budget for paid advertising has increased

All of these tasks will require different people on your team to achieve certain goals within a given time frame. By delegating each aspect of your goal to the right people, you can create a foolproof method to get your desired results.

Using clearly-defined action items removes the confusion that may result if these things are broadly discussed in a team meeting. Action items move your tasks out of this general space and into a more results-driven position.

How do you define action items?

Now that you understand the importance of having a list of action items, you might still be wondering, “What is an action item?”

Good action items have certain characteristics that make them concise and easily understood by all team members. Depending on the team, and the project, you can keep action items at a higher level. 

Remember, this isn't about micromanaging how people complete their work. Action items are about what work output they are responsible for.

An action item should include:

  • A unique identifying code/reference number
  • The individual or team responsible for completing the action
  • A timeline with a start date, as well as scheduled progress reports
  • A deadline for when the item must be completed‌
  • A description of the task with more detail
  • A status (for example: scheduled, in progress, completed)
  • A priority ranking in terms of the overall objective
  • Additional space to include any necessary documents or notes

By providing this information, you’ll make it easier for your team to prioritize their various assignments within the company. This way, you can help your team manage their time more efficiently.

Having a good action items template helps to streamline the process of making a task list. You can use the same action items template across various departments in your company. This makes it much easier for management to evaluate different projects and to track progress throughout the year.

Tips for writing action items

Meetings can often involve everyone talking about the task without clear goals being set. Too often, employees leave a team meeting or brainstorming session having listened to many ideas without knowing exactly what they need to do.

Instead of keeping meeting notes that get filed away, never to be seen again, you should write a list of meeting action items. Even better, be explicit about identifying action items out loud as they occur in the conversation.

Save 5 minutes at the end to review this action item list to make sure the right owners are assigned. Send out the list after the meeting to clarify and reinforce responsibilities.

In order to avoid vague meeting minutes, it’s helpful to keep in mind the following tips when writing your action items:

1. Be specific

Go into some detail about what needs to be completed and why. If someone doesn't understand what needs to be done, this can lead to a lot of time being wasted on doing something unrelated.

Although you should be specific, don’t stipulate how the person or group responsible must complete the action. For greater autonomy in the workplace, self-managed teams should be able to decide their own methods and workflows.

They need to understand what is expected of them and how the specific task they are responsible for fits into the greater project.

2. Use verbs in your description

Using verbs to describe the action item makes it clear what needs to be done. Use simple language to cut out confusion and make the description as clear as possible.

2. Assign ownership

Each action item needs to be assigned to a specific person or group of people to complete. This way, there is no confusion about who is responsible for each item. Delegating the right tasks to the right people is a great way to empower your team.

team-discussing-with-project-manager-action-items

3. Set a realistic due date

Although there may be a lot of pressure to have a project completed by a certain date, don’t set unrealistic deadlines for your team. Putting too much pressure on your employees is unproductive.

If your team feels pressured to work long hours, they could become stressed and mentaly exhausted and physically exhausted. This could lead to burnout.

4. Include task details

A clear description of what is required to achieve the end goal is important to avoid ambiguities.

5. Include a status

Include a status, such as Scheduled, In Progress, In Review, and Completed. Having a status for each action item allows you to keep on top of your tasks and know exactly where you are in terms of delivery.

It also helps project managers track, manage, and report on the project’s progress.

6. Assign a priority level

Some team members may have more than one action item assigned to them. Because multitasking can hinder your performance, it’s better for them to focus on one task at a time.

By assigning priority levels — low, medium, high, or urgent — your team will know what to focus on first. This will help improve their concentration and time management.

How to write action items for other people

When dealing with complex projects, a project manager often needs to effectively communicate the client’s requirements with their team. To do this, project managers need the skills to write action items for other people.

Here are some tips:

  1. Ensure action items are clear. Focusing on clarity ensures everyone can clearly understand the whole task and what they individually need to do.
  1. Ensure assignees have everything they need. There’s no point in asking your team to do something if they don’t have the resources to do it.

Make your action items reasonable by ensuring your employees have the necessary skills and tools to deliver high-quality work. Give them the right environment to speak up and ask for things they may need.

  1. Consider the skill sets of your team. Take into consideration each team member’s skills, expertise, and preferences. By assigning the right task to the right person, you can improve productivity and motivate your team.

smiling-woman-typing-in-her-office-action-items

  1. Give context for better understanding. Everyone should be aware of how their assigned action items fit into the company’s larger goals. Giving background information can help employees complete their tasks and motivate them. Knowing the value of their personal role can also drive purpose and create a sense of belonging.
  1. Make action items as granular as possible. When you are dealing with complicated tasks, the best way to deal with them is to break them down into many different action items. By dividing these really big long-term projects into many smaller items, your team is able to work through them in a methodical way.

Following up on action items

You’ve assigned action items to your team. Now what?

You need to be able to track action items and follow up on their status to make sure they have been completed in a timely manner.

The most effective way to follow up on action items is to build reporting and tracking into your workflow. This way, it is much easier for management to track the progress of each project or task. Each team member can also see how the project is progressing beyond their personal role.

Project leaders and managers should be able to see what progress has been made for each action item in one consolidated place. This prevents micromanaging and gives a broad perspective of whether the project is on track.

This can be a shared document like a spreadsheet or project management software. Either one will work so long as it offers a high level of functionality and makes team collaboration simple.

Communication is a critical part of following up on action items. Team members should feel safe communicating any blocks they are experiencing. Likewise, project managers need to communicate if priorities change.

Key takeaways for creating effective action items

Remember these takeaways:

  • Action items are like stepping stones that a team or individual needs to take to complete a bigger task.
  • A good action items list clearly defines each person’s role and responsibilities to avoid confusion or duplicate work.
  • Following a standard action items template will ensure consistency throughout your company.
  • Always assign a task owner to take charge and be responsible for each action item.
  • Make sure that the owner of each action item understands the description of the task and has the resources to complete it.
  • Follow up on action items by building reporting and tracking into your workflow.

Regardless of the industry, every business has long and short-term goals. But how do you translate these ideas into the real world?

By using action items, you move these goals down into the detail of individual milestones.

This makes them much more achievable as each person has a set of directions to get your team exactly where you envision it to be.

If you want to take action or learn how to transform performance, BetterUp can help. Our coaches can help you ‌improve your ability to manage tasks and people to get the best results. 

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Published March 28, 2022

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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