Following up on action items

We recently had the chance to talk to Isabella Finch from the London Institute of Management about managing teams and action items. She provided us with some very useful insights into the topic.

Q: Project management often seems to be a way of assigning tasks and deadlines to people who are already very busy. Is that what it is?

A: It can be but I don’t think it’s enough. I think we all acknowledge that the things that take place between meetings are crucial in determining the success of a project. It’s very important to keep everyone motivated and with their eye on the ball.
I mean, very often priorities change after a meeting. People work long hours and just can’t physically do everything that they’ve agreed in a meeting. It is possible to alter the ‘excuse’ culture, but it’s hard!

Q: Can you give us some things to do in order to make that change?

A: Have clear agreements about actions and dates for all the action items. Avoid using the date of the next meeting date as the deadline for completion. Make the deadline one that creates a feeling of urgency and importance for the project. At the same time, let people know that the dates can be negotiated so that everyone is happy they can meet the deadline. If anyone thinks there’s a danger of not meeting the deadline they should know they have to communicate it to the others. Communication is absolutely vital.
Immediately after the meeting – within one hour of it I would say – make sure a summary of the main points is distributed. You need to get someone to track and follow-up the action items. This is one of the key aspects of effective project management.

Q: What rate of completion of action items do you expect?

A: You mean the “say/do ratio?”? I think more or less 60% is the average. If you set a target though – say 80% – then getting there will give the team a great sense of achievement. Don’t set a 100% target! That’s just setting your team up to fail. What you want to see is an overall trend of improvement, not perfection.

Q: What about dealing with team members on the subject of deadlines and targets?

A: Try to be an understanding team member, not a task dictator. We all have complicated lives with demands coming from different sources, different teams. By trying to get to understand each team member’s current situation you win their respect and they’ll become an increasingly reliable contributor.

Q: But what if someone does ‘drop the ball’?

A: That happens and when it does you can’t let it go unchallenged. But try to make it a gentle conversation when you discuss it. The reason for the event is probably a cultural one, not because the team member is a duplicitous, bad person. You should act as a role model for the behaviour you want and constantly remind everyone what you expect.

Q: And if that doesn’t work?

A: If you’re not hitting the targets you expected then perhaps you need to tackle the issues directly with your team. This is a constructive process.

You could try out some of these questions:

  • Is each action item essential to completion of the project?
  • At the time we commit, do we fully intend to do whatever it takes to deliver?
  • Are we clear about what needs to be done, who will do it, and when it will be done?
  • Do we have the ability to say no or negotiate when we can’t fully commit?
  • Is it OK if someone follows up to check on our progress?
  • Do we have a system to keep track of action items and their completion?
  • Do we have an agreement to communicate if something comes up that might interfere with our completion of the task?

This is a problem-solving approach and is intended to raise everyone’s level of awareness about sticking to their commitments and the day-to-day issues that stop them doing so.

Raising the completion level for action items leads helps greater progress toward goals, and at the same time a huge sense of achievement — on a personal level and for the team.

At NotifyMe we’re constantly trying to put these insights into action and we’re getting positive results in how successfully we follow up actions.

Let us know if these points work for you too!

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