Manage Issues and Action Items Like a Pro

I’ve never been very good at billiards but I enjoy playing. Years ago a friend, who was quite good, and I would play and he would give me pointers. If I didn’t have a clear shot he reminded me I should just find a way to get a ball closer to the pocket. Essentially he coached me to determine what the next step would be. Mark Twain once wrote “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.” Complex projects are normally broken down into small manageable tasks during the planning phase but as the work begins unplanned details come up and need to be addressed. Sometimes they are activities that were unknown or overlooked during planning and sometimes they are the result of unexpected events that need to be addressed. In this article we’ll look at ways to deal with all of those things that need to be addressed that didn’t make it into your project plan.

What are Issues and Action Items?

Most of the unplanned project activities fall into one of two categories. They are either issues or action items. Simply put, issues are known problems your team must overcome to achieve desired results. As their name implies, action items are the next steps people must take to resolve an issue, mitigate a risk, or handle an unplanned activity. Every project also has to deal with risks, the management of which often creates action items but risk management is a complete topic to itself, outside the scope of this article.

Effectively Managing Issues and Action Items

Now that we have a common understanding of issues and action items, how do you ensure they are addressed in a timely and efficient manner? Here are some ideas that have worked well for me over the years.

1. Create logs for your issues and action items

I recommend creating separate logs for your issues and action items. There are several advantages to logging issues and action items. First, without documenting them it becomes difficult to remember them all. Sooner or later something will be missed. It also helps to prioritize the items when you can see a comprehensive list.

At a minimum your logs should contain the following for each issue or action item: an id number, the date the item was added to the log, a description, the person responsible for resolving the item, and a running status update.

Having these logs will make it easy to provide stakeholders with the latest updates on each item. It will allow you to focus on items open for long periods of time. It builds a level of accountability and it provides a quick way to reference each item on the list.

2. Assign a single owner to each issue and action item

Multiple people may need to work together to resolve an issue or action item. Your team members will frequently ask you to assign several people as the owner of the item. Resist the temptation to assign multiple people to any item. As harmless as it may sound, having more than one person designated as the owner of an issue or action item only leads to confusion. As the old adage says “everybody’s problem is nobody’s problem”. Make it clear the person assigned to the item is responsible for resolving it even if they need assistance from others. Having a single person assigned makes it clear who is accountable for delivering results.

3. Set due dates for each issue and action item

Issues and action items without due dates may not be resolved in a timely manner. Assigning a due date makes it clear when the actions must be complete. At times it is acceptable to have the owner of the item provide a self-imposed due date but make sure you get a due date for each item in your log.

4. Regularly review all of your issues and action items

I typically review all open issues and action items with my team, as a team, on a weekly basis. Once people understand they must provide a regular update they tend to stay on top of their assigned items. As a courtesy I remind people of their assigned items before the team review so they will not be caught unprepared. During reviews keep the team focused on determining the next steps rather than trying to resolve each item. Otherwise your review will end up taking hours.

Conclusion

Focusing your team on specific issues and action items is a great way to make sure progress is being made. David Allen, author of the bestselling book “Getting Things Done” writes “When a culture adopts ‘What’s the next action?’ as a standard operating query, there’s an automatic increase in energy, productivity, clarity, and focus.” By consistently driving your team to identify issues and actions that must be taken and clearly documenting and tracking them I think you’ll find Allen is right.

The Impact Makers Difference

Impact Makers is structured to distribute our profits back to the community through our non-profit partners, currently RxPartnership and CHIP of Greater Richmond. An October 2010 letter of appreciation from RxPartnership explained the contributions of Impact Makers up to June 30, 2010 resulted in 1,662 uninsured Virginian’s receiving 8,666 prescriptions valued at over $1.5 million!