Anatomy of an Action Item

Meaningful change in an organization often comes with making small tweaks or modifications to basic practices. Workers everywhere are familiar with the ubiquitous action item. We create them for ourselves. We leave meetings with them. We categorize and organize them. Often, we peruse them and speculate creatively about how we’ll deal with them.

Creating efficient and effective action items starts by unpacking what constitutes an action item – its anatomy, if you will. If all parts are present, an action item behaves predictably and anyone reviewing it knows what it does. When a part is missing, ambiguity creeps in, and the action is left incomplete or miscommunicated.

Let’s unpack.

An action item has five required parts.

  1. A description of the action itself
  2. The individual responsible for the action
  3. The specific criteria defining the action’s completion
  4. A deadline proscribing when the action is to be completed
  5. The manner by which completion is reported.

How does it work? Let’s dive in.

Action Description

An action’s core, expectedly, is the action itself, which means we need a verb. Make it the phrase’s first word. Examples:

  • Submit the TPS report.
  • Schedule the shareholder meeting.
  • Complete mockups for the new website.
  • Post today’s sales goals to Twitter.

A well-formed action description balances brevity and detail. A good gauge is asking the question, ‘If I hand off this action item to someone who didn’t write it, will he/she be able to complete it?’ If ‘yes,’ it’s likely descriptive enough. If not, refine it.

Who’s Responsible?

Action items often involve efforts from multiple people or inputs, particularly for complex tasks. An action item, however, requires a single point of contact – an action-item owner – to take responsibility. So be sure to identify an owner. The owner is accountable for the action’s every aspect, and for communicating its status and completion.

How Do We Know It’s Done?

We know an action item is complete when we can answer the following questions:

  1. What are the stopping rules? How do we know what constitutes a “completed” item?
  2. How do we know when the action has been completed correctly?

Some tasks are more freeform, so it’s important to identify when to stop. With actions like ‘Generate a list of …,’ list concrete expectations. Also, what criteria determine when the action is completed successfully? Make it clear if a particular procedure, method, or approach is required to execute.

Deadlines, Deadlines, Deadlines…

Everyone knows about them, but deadlines often are missed after leaving a meeting. When should the action be completed? The owner is responsible for keeping work on track and committing to the deadline. Be as specific as you can. There are two primary deadline types:

  1. Closed-ended action: It has a well-defined stopping point. The short-term deadline has a date and time. The longer-term deadline may provide a date only, and assume that the deadline falls at the close of the business day.
  2. Open-ended action: These types (‘Collect research on…,’ for example) may be ongoing and don’t provide a clear date or time by when the task is to be completed. Here, it’s tempting to skirt accountability and specify no deadline at all. Resist. The open-ended action should be clear about when the relevant people – action-item owner, output recipients, and anyone critical to task completion – revisit action progress, and decide when to move forward.

Passing the Action Item Torch

When an action is complete, how do we notify everyone involved? How do we communicate updates about an action’s status? To do this, we identify the method of communication, and to whom we send the message. Examples:

  • Email completed report to [people].
  • Present updated spending spreadsheet at the [date] committee meeting.
  • [Action-item owner], schedule a face-to-face meeting with [people] within two days of completion.
  • [Action-item owner], update [ACME] shared Outlook calendar after scheduling retreat.

When it’s time to advance an action or its result, don’t forget to identify to whom the owner passes it. It’s an important part of a complex task’s chain of custody.

Putting It All Together

Let’s consider a well-formed action item.

Action: Research new CRM software options and create a list of the top three (3).
Owner: Julia M.
Deadline: Thursday, November 10. EOB.
Details: Include in a table 5 pros/cons max for each option. Max $24/month/user price point.
Handoff: Send recommendations via email to Jake R., Jana M., and Michelle B.

It’s simple, concise, and complete. Julia M. has enough detail to deliver the list correctly, and she’ll feel good after she delivers it because she’s been set up to succeed.

When an action item has all five components in place, it’s reaWhen all five action-item components are in place, the item is ready to go. If we find that one or more components are hard to nail down, obtaining the required information may be the real action item for now. Don’t know when something is due? Identifying a deadline becomes the new action item. Not sure who’s responsible and whether we need to consult with someone not present at a meeting? The new action item is obtaining clarity. Usually, action items are sub-goals of a larger, more complex task or goal. Expect contingencies and fit them into the work flow.

Don’t forget lists. Rarely is there a single action item. Actions travel in packs, so structure, arrange and communicate them as such. Anticipate problems or logjams by grouping or organizing action-item lists, leveraging each of the five components. Are most items concentrated with a single individual? Do several, critical actions all have tight deadlines, or the same deadline? Are all outputs headed in the same direction? To achieve even greater efficiency, and to apply business intelligence quickly, consider trends across your action-item list.

Getting Everyone On Board

Creating a culture of fully formed action items affects collaboration in powerful ways. I recommend sharing ‘Anatomy of an Action Item’ with your organization or team and promoting it as the standard. Remember, when a team member asks a leader to clarify, he or she typically isn’t challenging authority. Rather, the individual is seeking more information about a missing action-item element that he/she needs to complete the task successfully. In truth, creating a culture where everyone feels empowered to ask for the things they need is a sign of effective leadership. When people receive clear directions and lists of truly actionable items, productivity soars. People want to succeed, fundamentally. Establish a virtuous cycle within your group by offering people a simple, clear template for completing successful actions. So it goes:

Create clear action items →
Complete tasks successfully →
Feel Good About Success (and receive a hit of dopamine)→
Seek out more action items to continue feeling good about being a success

And repeat…


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