Request a demo
Back to Blog

What is an action plan? How to become a real-life action hero

September 24, 2022 - 14 min read

man-designing-a-plan-on-his-table-what-is-an-action-plan

Jump to section

What is an action plan?

Why should you build an action plan?

Who should build an action plan?

How to write an action plan

Building an effective action plan

Become an action hero

We’ve all had moments when a project went horribly wrong. Perhaps the catering never showed up at a corporate event you were hosting, or you forgot to consult an essential stakeholder before proceeding with a community project.

You probably could have avoided these blunders with extra preparation. As a matter of fact, 39% of projects fail due to a lack of planning.

While passion and excitement are noble traits, it’s worth lining everything up before rushing into a task. Usually, this means setting attainable goals, outlining clear steps for achieving them, and delegating the labor cleanly among your team members. You’ll want to include a healthy dose of deadlines while you’re at it.

These are the hallmarks of a strong action plan. Let’s look at how you can create one for yourself.

What is an action plan?

An action plan is a list of tasks and resources needed to complete a project or reach a goal. 

On the surface, this sounds like a to-do list or work plan. If you’re used to working in a fast-paced environment with tight deadlines, you might already fancy yourself pretty good at those.

But herein lies the difference: an action plan is about progress toward a larger goal. To-do lists, on the other hand, are a hodge-podge of things you need to do in a day — none of them necessarily have to relate to each other.

In an action plan, each task has a clear purpose and deadline. They work together to complete a project with the standards you would expect from a high-performer like yourself.

New call-to-action

Why should you build an action plan?

So, what is the purpose of an action plan? They benefit your work in a few ways:

  • Act as an instruction manual for your project. This task management strategy will tell you what steps to take and when. 
  • Keep you motivated. A great way to keep your spirits up is to write down your goals, break them into action steps, and track progress. As the wins rack up, you’ll feel motivated to continue.
  • Help you prioritize. Clear due dates mean you know what to complete first. This will give you a clear idea of what you should prioritize during the work week. Splitting the project into short-term versus long-term goals will help you stay organized.

And remember: action plans can benefit your personal life, too. Whether you’re selling soap on Etsy or painting in your spare time, breaking down your steps can help you make progress toward your personal goals.

woman-using-note-sticks-what-is-an-action-plan

Who should build an action plan?

Action plans are useful no matter who you are — especially if you’re a project manager. They allow you to:

  • Break down an activity into concrete, actionable chunks. Projects will feel less overwhelming once you outline the smaller milestones you must achieve. 
  • Track your progress through the duration of a project. You can check tasks step-by-step as you or your team completes them, making it easy to know whether you’re falling behind.
  • Create a clear and efficient workflow. You’ll know what to work on and when. This will help you or your team prioritize specific tasks and maximize efficiency.
  • Reduce the possibility of forgetting tasks. The further ahead you plan, the more time you’ll have to remember important tasks to add or leave wiggle room for unexpected additional steps. This will reduce the likelihood of forgetting anything important.
  • Communicate with your team efficiently. Breaking down each task means you can easily assign them to team members, reducing the risk of miscommunication and inefficiency.
  • Easily update your superiors on your progress. Your plan is your yardstick for how well you’re doing. This tool can easily report whether you’re on task or falling behind.

You can use action plans for any size of the project — the only difference is the number of steps involved in achieving your stated objectives. This makes them particularly useful for strategic planning.

Strategic plans are how your organization hopes to reach its long-term goals over the next 3–5 years. Usually, company leaders spend a lot of time considering these. They’ll look at market trends, consult with their employees, and create a robust SWOT analysis. Armed with this information, they’ll mobilize several smaller plans to achieve their goals.

So if, for example, your startup’s strategic goal is to become the dominant smartphone app for cat-related content, you’ll need action plans for:

  • Creating the platform
  • Building a user base
  • Hiring the right talent 
  • Customer service support
  • Acquiring seed funding

And you can further subdivide these plans into their own sets of goals and tasks. Creating the platform could involve multiple departments, including user interface design and algorithm development. Both of these projects require their own action plans to meet the organization’s higher-level goals.

man-working-on-his-computer-what-is-an-action-plan

How to write an action plan

Let’s get into the nuts and bolts of it. Here’s how you can lay out your own steps of an action plan.

1. Use the SMART goal-setting method

SMART stands for goals that are:

  • Specific: Clearly define what success looks like. Otherwise, you’ll never know if you’ve reached it. 
  • Measurable: What’s your metric for success? Make sure your goal is quantifiable so you can track your progress toward the finish line.
  • Achievable: You should be able to achieve your goal with the skills and resources you currently have.
  • Time-bound. There’s a clear end date by which you should have completed your tasks.

Here’s an example of a SMART goal: “Our goal is to sell 20,000 additional soap bars by the end of the year.”

2. Identify tasks

Now you can list the steps necessary to reach your end goal. Identify all the tasks necessary to achieve core milestones and assign them to your team with clear deadlines (or to yourself, if you’re on your own).

Returning to our soap business, you might create the following tasks:

  • Increase soap production capacity by 10%
  • Develop a marketing campaign to promote additional sales
  • Work with distributors to stock more products on their shelves
  • Negotiate a lower cost for raw materials

3. Identify tasks

The next step is to assign resources to each task, like a project budget, team members, or equipment. Every assignment should also have a clear deadline and a single person in charge. This will help you follow up and hold your team accountable.

To this well, you may have to give up tasks to your direct reports — no easy feat when you’d rather do everything yourself. Learning to delegate isn’t easy, but it sets both you and your team up to succeed.

4. Prioritize

Some tasks will depend on the completion of other items first. If you need more money for raw materials, your first step might be to acquire funding. If you don’t have enough staff to vamp up production, you’ll need to hire someone to fill the gap. In both of these cases, your desired outcome depends on a preceding task.

This means you’ll have to make strategic decisions about where to put your efforts. Make sure to highlight these dependencies in your management plan and factor the sequence into your prioritization. This will help avoid bottlenecks, which can occur when your team is bogged down with lower-priority items.

5. Set milestones and deadlines

Team members are more motivated when they understand how their work fits in the big picture. Giving them clear milestones will help in this regard.

Milestones are specific points within a timeframe indicating when a task is completed or a new project phase starts. Setting clear deadlines and celebrating milestones will help your team feel included and part of the journey.

man-smiling-at-his-tablet-what-is-an-action-plan

6. Monitor and make changes

Even the best-laid plans encounter issues. And the more experienced you are, the better you’ll anticipate problems and have contingency plans ready to go. No matter where you are in your career, you’ll prove yourself as a project manager through your ability to take corrective action.

When a global pandemic derails your production plans, it's your job to communicate with your team and adjust accordingly. This could mean making small adjustments like extending deadlines. Or you might need to create completely new action plan goals. As long as everyone is on the same page — including senior management — you can adapt when adversity strikes.

Building an effective action plan

As you create your action plan, here are some guiding principles to keep in mind:

  • Involve your team in the planning process. They’re the ones doing the work, after all. They can help you brainstorm and offer valuable insight on the work required to reach specific goals. They can also help set appropriate deadlines and decide what’s feasible and what isn’t.
  • Set SMART project goals. It’s worth mentioning again. SMART goals are your friend — keep them front and center so you don’t lose your way.
  • Create action plan templates. When you find a format that works for your project, save them for later. Half the work is organizing the information in your document or spreadsheet. Templates will help you avoid trouble.

woman-writing-on-a-agenda-what-is-an-action-plan

Become an action hero

In every action movie, there’s a moment when our hero creates a plan to take down a villain. They identify the enemy’s weakness, assign roles to our trusty side characters, and then spring into action.

You might not be fighting a big battle, but that doesn’t make your goal any less important. Knowing what an action plan is and how to execute it can make you the hero of your organization.

Use the SMART method, clearly assign tasks with deadlines, and turn your successful plans into templates you can use later. Before you know it, you’ll be crushing your work goals.

New call-to-action

Published September 24, 2022

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

Read Next

Productivity
17 min read | January 25, 2021

8 hard and soft skills a project manager should have

Project managers are the lifeblood of any organization. Here are 8 hard and soft skills every project manager should have. Read More
Leadership & Management
8 min read | March 15, 2021

Bold conversations to drive bold actions: Laura Fuentes, EVP and CHRO at Hilton

A conversation with Laura Fuentes, Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer at Hilton Read More
Productivity
11 min read | January 14, 2022

More than money: When it comes to goals, can thinking like a millionaire help?

Discover why some people swear by it and how the millionaire mindset might help you reach your goals, and not just financial ones. Read More
Well-being
18 min read | January 20, 2022

Working smarter, not harder: 15 tips for making it real

Find the right tips for you on how to work smart, not harder, and watch your productivity soar. Read More
Productivity
20 min read | March 28, 2022

What is an action item? Your guide to wrangling tasks

Use this guide to create action items to alleviate project management pain points and keep your team moving in the same direction. Read More
Productivity
14 min read | September 13, 2022

Boost Your Productivity By Acknowledging Distractions: How To Avoid Interruptions At Work

Distractions can cost you valuable time. Here’s how to avoid interruptions at work so you can focus on what’s important. Read More
Professional Development
15 min read | September 14, 2022

24 action verbs for your resume that will get you the job

Learn all action verbs for resumes that’ll make your application pop, what words to avoid, and how precision is key. Read More
Well-being
15 min read | November 23, 2022

How to make an action plan to achieve your goals and follow it

Most people fail to achieve their goals. But, by learning how to make an action plan to achieve goals, you can beat the odds. Here’s how. Read More
Productivity
16 min read | November 14, 2022

Your 6-step guide on how to make an action plan for management

Here's a complete guide on how to make an action plan for management, including 5 ways to make sure your plan works. Read More

Stay connected with BetterUp

Get our newsletter, event invites, plus product insights and research.