Action Steps are the most important components of projects—the oxygen for keeping projects alive. No Action Steps, no action, no results. The actual outcome of any idea is dependent on the Actions Steps that are captured and then completed by you or delegated to someone else. Action Steps are to be revered and treated as sacred in any project.The more clear and concrete an Action Step is, the less friction you will encounter trying to do it. If an Action Step is vague or complicated, you will probably skip over it to others on your list that are more straightforward. To avoid this, start each Action Step with a verb:
Call programmer to discuss . . .
Install new software for . . .
Research the possibility of . . .
Mock up a sample of the . . .
Update XYZ document for . . .
Verbs help pull us into our Action Steps at first glance, efficiently indicating what type of action is required. For similar reasons, Action Steps should be kept short.
The more clear and concrete an Action Step is, the less friction you will encounter trying to do it.
Imagine you and I are having a conversation in a meeting. I describe to you what I want to accomplish and show you some diagrams that further describe the idea. You reply by saying, “I see what you’re trying to do. There’s a guy I know who designed a great website with the same type of functionality.” Upon saying this, I record an Action Step to follow up with you regarding that website:
Follow up with [name] re: guy’s website w/ similar functionality.
A colleague might say, “Let’s revisit that old draft and consider the initial plan that we had—maybe it was better? Let me know what you think.” In that case, your Action Step would be:
Print out old draft, follow up with [colleague’s name] re: alternative plan.
Sometimes you will find yourself waiting for a response to an email or a phone call. It is easy to forget something when it is in someone else’s court! To trigger yourself to follow up if you don’t hear back, you may want to create a separate Action Step.
Action Steps arise from every idea exchange. Even the smallest of Action Steps, when captured, will make a big difference because they create momentum. A missed Action Step can cause miscommunications, more meetings, and could be the difference between success and failure in any project.
Here are some key practices:
Capture Action Steps everywhere. Ideas don’t reveal themselves only in meetings, and neither should Action Steps. Ideas come up when you are reading an article, taking a shower, daydreaming, or getting ready for bed. If you think of someone that you met with a month ago regarding a certain project but have not yet followed up with, create an Action Step to “follow up with XYZ regarding . . .” If you are opening your mail and come across a wedding invitation, your Action Step is to RSVP.
Think of Action Steps expansively—as anything you might want to do—and capture all of them, not only the ones that arise during meetings.
Ideas don’t reveal themselves only in meetings, and neither should Action Steps.
Having some sort of pad or recording device handy will enable you to capture actions as they come to mind. Our team developed the iPhone version of Action Method Online because users wanted a quick and “anytime, anywhere” way to capture Action Steps and assign them to a project. Whatever medium you choose to use for capturing Action Steps, it should always be readily available. Your system should also make it easy to return to your Action Steps at a later time and distinctly recall what you were thinking. And, most important, you must always be able to distinguish Action Stepsfrom References—the regular notes and non-actionable ideas that you may have also written down.
An unowned Action Step will never be taken. Every Action Step must be owned by a single person. While some Action Steps may involve the input of different people, accountability must reside in one individual’s hands at the end of the day. Some people who lead teams or have assistants will capture Action Steps and delegate them to others. However, even when the onus to complete an Action Step has been delegated to someone else, the Action Step must still be owned by the person ultimately responsible.
Every Action Step must be owned by a single person.
The reason comes down to accountability. The practice of simply emailing someone a task to complete does not provide any assurance that it will be completed. For this reason, Action Steps that you are ultimately responsible for should remain on your list until completed—even when you have delegated them to others. Simply marking that the Action Step has been delegated and to whom is sufficient:
Print out old draft, follow up with Alex re: other plan (Oscar is doing).
Treat managerial Action Steps differently. Aside from the Action Steps that you and only you can do, there are three other types of Action Steps you should keep in mind as the leader of a project. The first type is delegated Action Steps, which we just discussed above. The second type is “Ensure Action Steps.” Sometimes you will want to create an Action Step to ensure that something is completed properly in the future. Rather than being a nag to your team, you can create an Action Step that starts with the word “ensure.” For example, “Ensure that Dave updated the article with the new title.” If you use a digital tool to manage your Action Steps, you can always search by the word “ensure” (to only view Action Steps that start with “ensure”) and spend some time verifying that these items have been done. Creating “Ensure Action Steps” is a better alternative then sending numerous reminder emails to your team when you are worried about something slipping through the cracks.
The last type of managerial Action Step is the “Awaiting” Action Step. When you leave a voicemail for someone, send a message to a potential customer, or respond to an email and clear it from your inbox, you’re liable to forget to follow-up if the person fails to respond. By creating an Action Step that starts with “Awaiting,” you can keep track of every ball that is out of your court. When I respond via email to a potential client, I create an Action Step like “Awaiting confirmation from Joe at Apple re: consultation,” saved in the project “Consulting Work.” In my online task manager I will set a target date for one week later. After a week passes, I will be reminded to follow up. Sometimes I will search all my Action Steps, across projects, with the word “awaiting” and dedicate an hour to follow up on everything.
Foster an action-oriented culture. Your team needs an action-oriented culture to capitalize on creativity. It may feel burdensome or even a bit aggressive to ask people to capture an Action Step on paper, but fostering a culture in which such reminders are welcome helps ensure that Action Steps are not lost. Some of the most productive teams I have observed are comfortable making sure that others are capturing Action Steps. Aside from friendly questioning along the lines of “Did you capture that?” some teams take a few minutes at the end of every meeting to go around the table and allow each person to recite the Action Steps that he or she captured. Doing so will almost always reveal a missed Action Step or a duplication on two people’s lists. This simple practice can save time and prevent situations in which, weeks later, people are wondering who was doing what or how something got lost in the shuffle.
Your team needs an action-oriented culture to capitalize on creativity.
Attraction breeds loyalty. When it comes to the mechanics of capturing action steps, you should find the solution that fits you best. Keep in mind that the design of your productivity tools will affect how eager people are to use them. Attraction often breeds commitment: if you enjoy your method for staying organized, you are more likely to use it consistently over time. For this reason, little details like the colors of folders you use or the quality of the paper can actually help boost your productivity.
In her book The Substance of Style, journalist Virginia Postrel shares an anecdote about usability guru Donald Norman’s assertion that “attractive things work better.” When the first color computer monitors became available commercially, Norman wanted to justify the value of buying the expensive monitors instead of the standard black-and-white displays. Nowadays, this decision might seem obvious, but back in the day before the World Wide Web and color printers, the value of a color monitor for functions like word processing was unproven.
“I got myself a color display and took it home for a week,” Norman recalled. “When the week was over, I had two findings. The first finding was that I was right, there was absolutely no advantage to color. The second was that I was not going to give it up.” In her analysis of Norman’s findings, Postrel explains, “The difference lay not in ‘information processing’ but in ‘affect,’ in how full-color monitors made people feel about their work.” In other words, the aesthetics of the tools you use to make ideas happen matter.