17 Jan 2017 20:00 IST

All talk and all action

Pic credit: EtiAmmos/Shutterstock

If you wish to make a difference, convert your thoughts into ‘action items’

The meeting is about to end, and you get ready to leave. Just then, your boss asks, “So, what are the action items?” Everyone freezes and unfreezes with a sigh and slumps back into his/her chair. They realise that the real meeting has just begun.

Deciding on actions that need to be taken, and the people who will take them, isn’t as easy as declaring intent. But why is this so? Mainly because most of the thinking doesn’t end with a clear list of things to do, also known as ‘action items’.

What about free thinking?

Some of you may ask, “Why bother with actions for everything?” Yes, free thinking is important in some situations (for instance, brainstorming). But even then, action plans — ‘making summaries’, ‘evaluating specific ideas’ and ‘setting up the agenda and timing for the next meeting’ — are necessary.

There are more reasons why converting thoughts into action items is useful.

~ When you think of actions, it remains more than just an idea. It gets real and you are forced to think deeply. You ascertain facts and apply logic.

~ Only actions make a difference.

~ After you commit yourself to actions, you are then in a position to think clearly about other areas of the to-do list that may need attention.

The conversion

Here are some examples of empty ideas, or non-actions.

~ “I will improve customer satisfaction.” (How? What is the measure of success? When do you say that ‘satisfaction’ has improved?)

~ “I will ensure that reports are sent on time.” (Which reports? What do you mean by ‘on time’?)

~ “Reducing rejection of components shall be our ongoing action.” (Who will do this? How will the reduction happen? When will it be achieved?)

~ “I shall be more creative.” (How? What will it achieve? What specific tools will I use, and when?)

The statements above are just intentions, and mere intent can’t make anything happen. The questions in brackets give some clues on how to change these statements from ‘intent’ to ‘action items’.

So how do you make this conversion? A good way would be to ask questions like:

1) What is the measure of success?

2) What are the measurement parameters?

3) How will I bring in change?

4) What do I need to succeed?

5) What are the steps between now and completion?

6) When will I achieve it?

Thinking in first person is usually better than deciding actions for others.

Baby steps matter

Try to be honest and clear with yourself. When you can’t decide an action item, admit it: “I cannot think of any action at this time.” This will save you a lot of time that goes into coming up with well-intentioned but futile stuff. Your honesty will pay off when you return to that particular thought or idea. You might even surprise yourself by quickly coming up with tangible and time-bound actions. If not, you will surely know enough to ask for help.

A test for action items

There is another good test. A healthy proportion of your actions should be in the near future (days, weeks, a month). This will ensure clearer thinking and allow you to modify your actions before it is too late.

You may think the above will cause rigidity in thinking and discourage free-flowing creativity or innovation. But if a goal or intention is too hazy, it needs to be worked on anyway. Another way is to hold one session to generate ideas and another to decide actions.

Best jargon-busters

Thinking of actions is the best way to get around useless or misleading jargon. If you wish to make a difference, convert your thoughts into action items.