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Why action items should be part of every meeting

PostsProject management
Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

April 03, 2024

We’ve all been to a meeting only to have it fizzle into nothing a week or two later. The culprit? Ambiguity. But if ambiguity is the arch-enemy of productivity, action items are heroes that save the day. 

Small but mighty, action items bring clarity, focus, and direction to teams, helping everyone know what’s expected of them and by when. The best bit? They’re so easy to do. Let’s dive in! 

What are action items?

When you’re wrapping up a meeting, and someone says, ‘Let’s follow up on this,’ what exactly does that mean? 

Here’s where the concept of an action item steps in. An action item is essentially a task or activity that arises out of a meeting or work session. Think of it as an item on your to-do list but with a bit more clout. It’s not just a job scrawled onto a bit of paper — it’s a specific, actionable step that moves a project forward or resolves a problem.

The beauty of action items is that they’re more than just vague suggestions like ‘boost sales’ or ‘update the website.’ They have a clear goal, a person responsible for carrying it out, and a deadline. This elevates the humble to-do list item into something with a what, how, when, and who.

What are the advantages of using action items?

Imagine leaving a meeting feeling clear about what you need to do next. Turn that dream into a reality!  

Adding action items to your workflow isn’t about burdening yourself with more tasks. It’s about making the tasks you already have clearer, more manageable, and more focused. 

1. Clarity and direction

Action items eliminate the guesswork from meetings and discussions by specifying exactly what needs to be done. They turn broad ideas into specific, achievable steps. 

This creates clarity, a sense of direction, and momentum while also helping everyone know what they need to do next. This cuts down on confusion and questions. 

2. Increased accountability

Assigning an action item to someone adds a layer of accountability while reducing the chance of social loafing. 

This sense of ownership should motivate individuals to tackle their tasks with the understanding that the team is counting on them. It’s essentially a gentle push reminding them of their role and its importance.

3. Enhanced productivity

Big projects can feel intimidating, and sometimes that turns into overwhelm or analysis paralysis

It’s a lot simpler to approach a large project when it’s divided into smaller tasks. This approach not only helps create a sense of momentum but also creates a series of mini-wins as the team ticks off each item, boosting morale along the way. 

4. Better time management

Adding deadlines to your action items makes it easier for teams to prioritize their workload. With due dates all lined up, they can organize daily or weekly tasks more efficiently. 

5. Improved communication

Since action items are timely and have deadlines, they tend to necessitate regular updates, which promotes a culture of openness. 

Teams that actively exchange information about their progress and hurdles are better positioned to tackle problems quickly and effectively.

6. Tracking and reflection

Completing action items marks progress in a project’s lifecycle. These milestones offer teams a chance to reflect on what they’ve accomplished, identifying areas for improvement in the next phase. 

This introspective process helps the team improve and grow as it goes along. 


Creating action items: The 3 W’s

Writing effective action items is like preparing a good recipe: you need the right ingredients. For action items, these ingredients are often referred to as the 3 W’s: What, Who, and When. Let’s take a closer look.

What

This is the heart of your action item. It should be a clear and concise summary of the task that needs to be accomplished. 

Avoid ambiguity by being specific about what needs to be done. So instead of saying ‘work on marketing,’ specify the action, like ‘create a draft of the marketing brochure for the new product launch.’

Who

Every action item needs an owner, someone who is responsible for getting the task done. This doesn’t mean they have to do it all by themselves, but they are the action point owner. 

Assigning a task to a specific person increases accountability and reduces the chances of the task falling through the cracks. It also means others on the team have a person to contact if they have a question. 

It’s the difference between a task that gets done and one that everyone thought someone else was going to do.

When

A deadline is what turns a wish into a commitment. Without a specific timeframe, tasks can drag on indefinitely. 

Set a realistic deadline for task completion. This helps with planning and prioritization, not just for the individual responsible for the task but for the entire team, as it makes for better effort coordination.

Here’s how to put it all together

Let’s take a look at how this plays out with some examples. The ‘before’ option represents a vague to-do list item. The ‘after’ represents the same goal turned into a bright, shiny action item.

  • Before: ‘Update the client database.’
  • After: ‘John will update the client database with new entries from the sales team by end-of-day Friday.’

The transformed action item is specific about what needs to be done, who will do it, and when it should be completed, making it far more effective and likely to be completed. We’ll share some more examples a little later on. 

A step-by-step guide to creating action items 

Creating action items is quick and easy. By following the simple step-by-step process below, you can all but guarantee that your action items will be clear, actionable, and effective. 

Step 1: Identify the need for an action item

During meetings, brainstorming sessions, or project reviews, listen for tasks that emerge naturally from the discussion. These are potential action items. They might solve a problem, fulfill a need, or take advantage of an opportunity. Recognize these moments and jot them down.

Step 2: Define the action 

Take the idea or task you’ve identified and refine it into a clear, concise statement. 

This step is about turning vague concepts into specific actions. For example, instead of ‘improve customer support,’ define the action as ‘create a new customer support script focusing on common questions.’ 

Step 3: Assign a responsible person

Choose someone to own the action item. This person doesn’t have to complete the task alone, but they will be responsible for its progress and completion. 

When assigning a person, think about the individual’s workload, skills, and interests to ensure the task is a good fit.

Step 4: Set a realistic deadline

Work with the task owner to set a deadline. It should be achievable but also create a sense of urgency. Consider the task’s priority and how it fits into broader project timelines or goals.

Step 5: Clarify the details

Discuss any specific details, resources, or support the task owner might need. This is also the time to clarify how this action item ties into larger project goals or what success looks like.

Step 6: Document the action item

Write down the action item, including the task description, the individual in charge of it, and the deadline. Use a format that’s accessible and visible to the entire team, e.g. a document or chart on your project management tool.

Step 7: Communicate the action item

Make sure everyone involved or affected by the action item is aware of it. Mention it at the end of the meeting, send a follow-up email, and/or post it on your shared project management tool.

Step 8: Follow up and update

Regularly check in on the progress of the action item. Encourage updates and be ready to offer assistance or adjust deadlines if necessary. Celebrate completion to recognize efforts and keep morale high.

Examples of good action items

Good action items are the fuel for project momentum and team productivity. They transform the abstract into the concrete and help everyone understand what needs to be done. 

Here are a few examples to illustrate how to put the principles of specificity, accountability, and timeliness into practice. 

Example 1: Website redesign project

  • Vague task: ‘Work on the website redesign.’
  • Transformed into a good action item: ‘Alex will create a wireframe for the homepage redesign by next Wednesday.’

This action item is effective because it clearly defines what needs to be done (create a wireframe for the homepage redesign), who is responsible (Alex), and the deadline (by next Wednesday).

Example 2: Client onboarding process

  • Vague task: ‘Improve the client onboarding experience.’
  • Transformed into a good action item: ‘Maria will review the current client onboarding process and present three improvement suggestions at the next team meeting on April 5th.’

This action item specifies the task (review the current client onboarding process and present improvement suggestions), assigns it to an individual (Maria), and sets a deadline (by the next team meeting on April 5th).

Example 3: Marketing strategy for a new product

  • Vague task: ‘Start planning the marketing for the new product.’
  • Transformed into a good action item: ‘The marketing team will draft an initial marketing strategy for the new product, focusing on social media and email campaigns, to be shared for feedback by April 15th.’

Here, the action item delineates the task (draft an initial marketing strategy focusing on social media and email campaigns), specifies the responsible group (the marketing team), and sets a completion date (by April 15th).

Example 4: Updating team policies

  • Vague task: ‘Update the team policies.’
  • Transformed into a good action item: ‘Jenna will compile feedback on the current team policies and draft revisions for discussion at the team retreat on May 20th.’

This action item clarifies the task (compile feedback and draft revisions of the team policies), identifies the responsible person (Jenna), and provides a deadline (for discussion at the team retreat on May 20th).

Tips for creating action items that get results

Creating action items that genuinely drive progress requires a bit more than just following a formula. It’s about understanding the nuances of your team, the scope of your projects, and the rhythm of your workflows. Here are some tips.

1. Be as specific as possible

Ambiguity is the enemy of productivity! Make sure your action items describe exactly what needs to be done. Use action verbs to start each item, like ‘draft,’ ‘review,’ ‘schedule,’ or ‘research,’ to prompt immediate understanding.

2. Tailor the task to the individual

When assigning action items, consider the strengths, weaknesses, and current workload of team members. 

Give tasks to those best suited to them, both in terms of skill and capacity. This means the task is more likely to be completed while also contributing to their personal development.

3. Make deadlines realistic and flexible

Deadlines should motivate, not demoralize. Ensure the timeframes you set are achievable and take into account the complexity of the task and the individual’s other commitments. Be prepared to adjust deadlines if necessary to accommodate unforeseen challenges.

4. Ensure alignment with broader goals

Each action item should clearly contribute to the larger project or organizational goals. This helps team members grasp the importance of their tasks and how they fit into the bigger strategy, boosting motivation and commitment.

5. Use clear, concise language

Avoid jargon and complex language. The goal is for every team member, regardless of their role or expertise, to understand what is being asked of them without needing further clarification.

6. Incorporate feedback mechanisms

Establish a system for regular updates and adjustments. This could be as simple as weekly check-ins or daily standups or as structured as a project management tool that allows for comments and progress tracking. Feedback mechanisms ensure that obstacles are identified and addressed promptly.

7. Celebrate completions and milestones

Don’t just let all those achievements slip by. Recognize when the team hits their targets, especially those that have a big impact on the project’s progress. 

Celebrating these wins can be a big morale boost and encourage continued effort and engagement from the team.

8. Review and refine regularly

Take time periodically to review the effectiveness of your action items. Do they contribute to project goals? Is the team managing to complete them on time? Use these reviews as opportunities to refine your approach to creating future action items.

Some quick and easy action item templates

Need a little help with your first action item? Just use one of the templates below, customize, and then share it with the team. 

Template 1: Basic action item template

  • Action item: [Brief description of the task]
  • Assigned to: [Name of the person responsible]
  • Due date: [MM/DD/YYYY]
  • Details: [Any additional information, context, or resources needed]
  • Priority: [High/Medium/Low]
  • Status: [Not started/In progress/Completed]

This template covers the essentials, making it a good choice for most situations where you need to track tasks and responsibilities.

Template 2: Detailed action item template for projects

  • Action item ID: [Unique identifier]
  • Action item: [Clear description of the task]
  • Assigned to: [Name of the person or team responsible]
  • Due date: [MM/DD/YYYY]
  • Priority: [High/Medium/Low]
  • Related project: [Name or ID of the project]
  • Objective: [What this action item aims to achieve within the project]
  • Resources required: [List of resources or tools needed]
  • Dependencies: [Other tasks or projects this item is dependent on]
  • Progress notes: [Space for updates, challenges, or changes to the action item]
  • Completion date: [Date when the action item was completed]

This more detailed template is particularly useful for complex projects where action items may have dependencies, require specific resources, or are part of larger objectives.

Using these templates:

  • Customize to your needs: Feel free to adjust or expand the templates based on the specifics of your project or team dynamics. The goal is to ensure that every action item is clear and actionable.
  • Update regularly: Make sure to keep the information up to date, especially the status and progress notes. Regular updates help keep the team aligned and knowledgeable about each task’s progress.
  • Keep it accessible: Use a format or platform that’s easily accessible to everyone involved. This could be a shared document (but a cloud-based project management tool is better).

Turn plans into action with project management tools

Project management tools are a great way to manage action items. They offer task assignment, tracking, and real-time updates from one central hub. This makes collaboration not just easy but less admin-intensive too.

Backlog, our own project management tool, comes with communication features, making it easier for remote teams to get involved. Leave comments, share docs, create interactive Gantt charts, and more. With capabilities for task tracking and the option to integrate Nulab Pass for an extra layer of security, it truly offers a one-stop-shop for collaboration, from creating action items to signing off on a project well done.

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