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Using Action Items for Better Project Management

When undertaking a new project or process improvement, organizations create action items that set change in motion. As the name suggests, an action item is a discrete task meant to be carried out to achieve a common goal. In regard to optimization, managers or supervisors typically assign action items after group meetings or cross-functional collaboration with leaner or more streamlined operations as the core objective underpinning everything.

Although action items may appear like simple tools anyone could master, they are, in fact, quite nuanced. Developing clear, concise action items improves a project’s chances of success and prevents risks from slowing projects down or dismantling them altogether.

Pay attention to the three prongs of every prosperous project
For a project to be considered successful, it must adhere to three standards:

  • Teams met all their goals established at the onset
  • Teams completed their goals on time
  • Teams stayed on budget throughout

All action items comprising a project must distinctly address each of these components. Project managers who assign action items must, among other things, ask themselves:

  • Can the person to whom I assign this action item accomplish it with the resources provided?
  • How much time will this action item take to accomplish?
  • How much money should an assignee spend to accomplish this action item?

Not following through may bring disastrous consequences. One study from the Project Management Institute reported low-performance project management organizations, those who did not heed these elements, risk much more money than high performers if given the exact same budget. With $1 billion to fund projects and little to no observance of these three principles for project management, low performers could endanger as much as 28 percent. High performers that keep goals, money and time on their minds only risk 2 percent.

Action Items

Be careful when assigning one action item to multiple people
Some project management experts will argue the ratio of action items to people should always be 1:1. Others may allow leniency for a small group to take on an action item. And honestly, whatever verifiably works for an organization should be the rule of thumb.

However, a word of caution: When project managers appoint many people to perform a simple task, they imbue the assignment with unnecessary complexity. If managers feel like groups are crucial to finishing an action item, perhaps the action item in question hasn’t been reduced to its lowest common denominator. Project leaders may find it beneficial to continue dividing and assign action items from there.

“Uncompleted or incorrectly completed action items always create more action items.”

Understand how today’s action items branch off into tomorrow’s action items
Action items typically delineate stages or phases in a project, each one progressing further toward the accomplishment of a goal. The completion of one action item may, in turn, give rise to another or to multiple others. Employees assigned action items, as well as their managers, may find value in considering what lies ahead and how that may impact present work. If an action item involved travel to a remote location, for example, and managers knew another action item a week later would require the same trip, combining the two tasks may present savings in time and labor costs.

Additionally, while the potential of one action item to create another may not necessarily hold true, uncompleted or incorrectly completed action items always create more action items, many of which a project team may be incapable of solving. Let’s say an employee completes a task but spends much more of the budget than anticipated. What happens? This dilemma births action items focused on trimming costs elsewhere to make up from overspending in that one area. As such, project managers must stress to team members the importance of sticking to the script when carrying out action items. Failure to do so will only create more work for everyone and put more space between them and their objective.

Compartmentalizing project management into discrete chunks and delegating intelligently helps organizations home in on the finish line one step at a time. Before your next big project, be sure to review the finer points to creating action items so the whole team stays on task.