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Action Items: What They Are & How to Define Them

Updated on January 3, 2024By
Action Items

Action items start where the agile meeting end. Because most meetings end with variations of an enthusiastic, “Okay, team, let’s make this happen!”

Cut to a day or two later when confused team members are asking each other, “What was it that we had to do? What had we discussed?” or “How do we go about it?” Well, this is what happens when you fail to document the key points in the meeting!

Sure, creating a to-do list would have been great, but we’re about to introduce you to something even better – action items.

Here’s a complete guide on action items and how they can drive projects to success.

What is an action item?

Action items are small and distinct tasks, events, or activities that contribute to a larger, more complex business objective. Depending on the complexity of the project goal, action items may also be populated as an action item list – a logical list of action items.

Typically documented after a stakeholder meeting, the individual action items are then assigned to a particular team or individual. 

action item example
Action item created using Nifty

The Three Ws of Action Items

From the definition above, you can think of action items as a pragmatic to-do list with granular details, greater context, enhanced traceability, and increased accountability. Such characteristics can be attributed to the following three Ws:

  • Who? This contains the task owner’s details and ascribes accountability and responsibility for overseeing its completion.
  • What? This is an action-oriented description of all the tasks, activities, or events that indicate completion. It must be clear, concise, and unambiguous.
  • When? This is a timeline for task completion. It could be a deadline or a milestone which is indicated in a date and time format.

Benefits of using action items

Here are a few reasons to use action items during project management:

1. Makes meetings meaningful

Whether it is a project kick-off meeting or daily sprints, meetings are crucial to making projects successful. With action items in the picture, you can translate meeting takeaways into actionable forms to keep the momentum going and keep every stakeholder’s head in the game.

2. Mobilizes workloads and resources

Project managers typically use cutting-edge project management tools to trace, track, and monitor action items. It not only makes project management more effortless and efficient by offering a high-level view of all the underlying activities but also makes it easier to manage project resources. They can get an idea of the team’s workload and the resources available to them to ensure smooth functioning.

3. Improves communication and offers direction

Action items often follow team meetings. As such, they are the latest to-do list depending on the decisions taken or plans devised during such meetings. Drawing up such an action items list immediately communicates decisions and directions to the task owners so that they can do their bit to realize the goal.

Even the stakeholders who failed to attend the meeting can refer to the action items to understand their roles and responsibilities so that they can work collaboratively.

4. Maintains employee accountability

Action items have an owner, a priority level, and a deadline. They also bear a touch of recency as they reflect decisions from the latest team meetings or discussions. As such, it instills a sense of responsibility and accountability among the teams and their members.

5. Tracks project progress

Since action item lists are specific and arranged in order of priority, they grant a semi-detailed overview of the project status. Project managers can track the status of an action item along with its corresponding tasks and get an idea of the progress.

How to define an action items list?

An action items list or an action plan is a documented inventory of all the tasks, events, and activities that need to be completed to meet project goals or objectives. It comprises action items as its building blocks.

Here’s how you can build an action items list: 

Step 1: Identify the Actionable Verb

Identify the Actionable Verb
Identify the Actionable Verb

“Action” is the key term in action items. As such, it should be the heart of its conception. Think of the action item as a verb – a doing word – that clearly indicates what needs to be done. So, when you think of the task at hand, identify the verb and use it as the foundation of the action item.

Step 2: Assign a title and a tracking number for the action item

Assign tracking number
Assign tracking number to action items

Once you have isolated the verb, use it as a descriptor for defining the title of the action item. Keep this title short, typically about a sentence, but at the same time, actionable and informative.

After all, you will get space later to add more details. You can even assign a unique tracking number for this action item so that you and your team members can track it or refer to it while dealing with multiple action items.

Step 3: Write a short description for the action item

Write a short description for the action item
Write a short description of the action item

Elaborate on the title to add a short, meaningful description of the action item. It should be a brief summary of what, why, when, and how of the task that needs to be completed without getting into the explicit details. Try to frame instructions rather than heavily detailed step-by-step guides.

To offer you context, an action item description typically spans a sentence or two. However, it all depends on the nature of the action item and its complexity.

Step 4: Set a priority level for each action item

Set priority levels
Set priority levels

When you have multiple action items on your list, you might want clarity on what needs addressing first. After all, not all tasks need to be completed in the order in which they were assigned. And for this reason, you will have to define a system of priority to indicate the urgency and importance of certain tasks.

You can assign weighted numbers as priority or use tags like “high priority” to make the more pressing matters stand out.

Step 5: Create a timeline for the action items

While building a timeline for the action items, project managers will have to identify three key dates – the creation date, the estimated date of completion, and the actual date of completion.

The period between the first two dates corresponds to the projected date of task completion, while the first and third dates indicate the actual duration of task completion. Do note that the word “complete” here means the end goal or state for the task.

Step 6: Designate a task owner for the action items

Assign users
Assign users to tasks

Now is when you add a task owner to this action item. Assigning the action item to an individual establishes a single point of contact for obtaining or communicating all details related to the action item. It also maintains accountability for tracking and completion of the action item.

Step 7: Add specific information or details

By this point, your action item would have come along splendidly. You have the title, a tracking ID, a description, a priority, a timeline, and a task owner. Go over all these details. If you find any pertinent information or instruction missing, then add it as a note to this action item.

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Examples of clear action items

Here are a few examples that you can follow as action item templates!

Action Item Example #1: Marketing

The action items list in case of a social media management team would have action items like these:

Action Item #1: Identify lead magnets for circulation from 3rd to 7th June 2023
Task owner: James Bond Priority level: Medium Due date: 21/05/2023
Task description: Check the already published content assets and identify the ones that can be promoted from the 3rd to the 7th of June across the different social media channels. Also, look for content repurposing opportunities.
Action Item #2: Create infographics from the latest survey “XYZ”
Task owner: Atticus Finch Priority level: High Due date: 30/05/2023
Task description: Convert the key findings from the latest survey, “XYZ,” into engaging infographics for publication on LinkedIn.
Action Item #3: Write captions or copies for the lead magnets to be circulated from the 3rd to the 7th of June 2023
Task owner: Elizabeth Bennet Priority level: Medium Due date: 31/05/2023
Task description: Take inputs from James Bond on the content assets that are to be circulated on different social media platforms and write actionable and captivating copies for the respective channels.

Based on the above action items, here’s what the action item list would look like in the Kanban form:

Example of a marketing plan action item created in Nifty
Example of a marketing plan action item created in Nifty

Action Item Example #2: Chatbot Design

Say a chatbot development agency is working on creating a chatbot for the brand ABC. The action items on their list may contain:

Action Item #1: Create a chatbot profile
Task owner: Jay Gatsby Priority level: High Start date: 22/05/2023 Due date: 06/06/2023
Task description: Build a profile for the chatbot. It should contain the name, logo/avatar, personality, voice and tonality, and other details that make it distinct.
Action Item #2: Write a chatbot script for greetings
Task owner: Matilda Wormwood Priority level: Medium Start date: 10/06/2023 Due date: 12/06/2023 Task description: Write multiple scripts for how the chatbot will greet new and existing customers at different touchpoints. Please take inputs from Jay Gatsby on the brand voice and tonality of the chatbot. Connect with Sherlock Holmes to know about the different channels.
Action Item #3: List the different possible chatbot interactions
Task owner: Hermione Granger Priority level: High Start date: 10/06/2023 Due date: 17/06/2023
Task Description: Coordinate with the POC from ABC brand to understand the different chatbot interactions, whether they will be used to assist sales, capture lead details, redirect to the knowledge base, etc. List down the different use cases.
Action Item #4: Identify the channels to introduce the chatbot
Task owner: Sherlock Holmes Priority level: High Start date: 22/05/2023 Due date: 06/06/2023
Task description: Identify the different channels, website/landing pages, social media (Facebook, Instagram, etc.), and instant messaging platforms (WhatsApp, etc.) where brand ABC can introduce chatbots.

Here’s what this action items list would look like in the swimlane view:

Action item example in swimlane view
Action item example in swimlane view

Dos and Don’ts of Building an action items list

Here are a few dos and don’ts of building an action items list to help you stay on the right track:

1. Avoid any form of abstraction

Your action item must lead to an unambiguous and tangible outcome. You simply cannot write abstract instructions and expect your team members to figure out the what, when, and how. For the project to be successful, you need to document the action item in the SMART format for absolute clarity.

2. Brevity is Key

As a rule of thumb, your action item title should span a single-line sentence. Try to capture the essence of the action that needs to be performed so that the title is self-explanatory – at least at first glance.

You can always add supplementary information in the extra fields that follow, so focus on keeping the title brief and impactful.

3. Follow a consistent format

Consistency is the key to success. Following a fixed format, or better yet, an action items template, can make them easily distinguishable and comprehensible.

Remember, action items are a medium of communication, and following a consistent format will allow disparate team members to share information reliably.

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4. Write for everyone

Speaking of action items as a form of communication, project managers or team leaders must refrain from using jargon or technical language in the action items. Stick to a simple and easy-to-understand language that everyone comprehends.

It makes information accessible to all, which effectively increases its worth and value rather than gatekeeping.

5. Categorize action items

Wherever possible, try to categorize and group the action items on the basis of context, nature of action, stakeholder, and resource. Doing so ensures that there is no resource competition due to overlaps.

At the same time, the grouping of similar tasks makes them more manageable and easy to organize.

6. Factor in Interrelatedness

Some of the action item examples discussed previously demonstrate how certain action items can be related to others on the list. As such, you need to work out a priority and anticipated workflow that accounts for such interrelatedness and dependencies so that nothing gets stuck in a bottleneck. 

7. Communicate the action items

There is no point in creating an action items list if you fail to circulate it amongst your team, department, or organization. Having a powerful tool like Nifty can come in handy to centralize such information and make it accessible to all.

You can add, remove, and update the action items list in real-time while assigning stakeholders. You can use Nifty to visualize the action items in different formats.

8. Account for different time zones

You will be surprised to know how much of a difference adding AM/PM can make while setting deadlines. Imagine what would happen if your team was spread across different time zones! Account for any variations and calibrate the deadlines accordingly.

Alternatively, you can use agile project management tools that can automatically convert everything to local time.

Use Nifty for defining and tracking action items

Nifty is a powerful work OS that will allow project managers to extract the true benefits of action items. From organizing projects and resources to accelerating team productivity, Nifty ticks all the boxes through its power-packed features and functionalities.

You can define the action items however you want and add specific details as per your desired granularity.

How to use Nifty for action items
How to use Nifty for action items

You can view these action items list in different formats.

Action items list
Action items list

You can track the status of an action item through a centralized dashboard.

Action items through a centralized dashboard.
Action items through a centralized dashboard.

You can group the action items based on the task owner, due date, milestone, and other such variables.

Filters to toggle tasks as per requirement
Filters to toggle tasks as per requirement

And collaborate with team members to tackle work more effectively.

Invite guests to Nifty for collaboration
Invite guests to Nifty for collaboration
Communication with guests using Nifty
Communication with guests using Nifty

So, if you have an action item to upgrade project management, then “Sign up for Nifty” should be at the top of your list!

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