What goes into a great meeting action item?

Action items - or meeting todo's - can feel like a very simple part of every meeting, but there's a big difference between high and low-quality tasks!

What goes into a great meeting action item?

Action items come in many different forms — todo’s, tasks, projects, etc. But the idea behind them all is the same: something needs to be completed in order to get closer to a common goal. Think back to your last team meeting; were there any tasks that needed to be achieved, either by you or by someone else present? How were they noted down? Did you leave the meeting with a clear sense of what you needed to accomplish or were there open questions left? In this article, we will look at what action items are, why they are important, and take a detailed look at what makes a good action item. By the end, we’ll bring everything together with a system to help you level up your productivity and always remember what goes into action items ensuring that at all of your future meetings, you always leave with all of the details that you need.

Action items are the most important things to come out of any given meeting and leaving with an incomplete set or with improperly written action items can hinder your productivity both in the short and long term as important pieces of information get forgotten, lost, or have to be revisited. A common example of this is when your team needs to pause or interrupt an otherwise productive meeting for a moment to try and remember a decision that was finalized a few weeks or months ago during a different meeting, but no one can quite remember what that decision was or why it was made. Some people may have taken notes during that meeting and can look back, but the greater issue at hand is that no outcome or associated task was ever assigned to that decision, so no one needed to take ownership of seeing it through, and thus it fell through the cracks.

So, even if great meeting minutes are not taken during every meeting, the bare minimum should be a centralized and visible set of action items that everyone can refer to and work towards completing.

The components of a great action item

Every high-quality action item has three main pieces of information attached to it, that help describe every important aspect of the task. Like puzzle pieces, the three elements fit together, and without any one of the three, the associated action might get lost.

1. Who the item is assigned to

Arguably the most important piece of the puzzle, assigning someone ownership of the action can often be overlooked. In a one-on-one meeting, it might be quite clear who a given task belongs to, but not so much in a larger team meeting. So, before even proceeding to the next step, make sure it is clear who is in charge of seeing the task through.

2. What the action items entail

Once the task has an owner, make sure it is well-defined and has a clear end-goal. It is also a good idea to have the person who was chosen to be responsible for the task to write it down clearly for themselves or - in a more formal meeting setting with someone who is recording the minutes - ensure that the person responsible understands the goals of the task clearly.

For example, you should avoid writing vague tasks such as “look into marketing resources” or “code new features discussed”. These are tasks that might make sense in the current meeting but will lose all meaning as soon as you are out of that context. It pays to be specific here, so “code new features discussed” might turn into “add ‘Sign Up’ button on the home page to help users quickly create an account”. This task is much more specific and can stand on its own, whether you refer to it later that day or months from now.

This a list of specific tasks like this, you can easily tackle them when you next get the chance, without needing to ask for clarification from others and delay progress any further. When all action items are defined like this you’ll end up with a well-oiled machine of team productivity. If you currently have a list of tasks that are not well-defined it may make sense to run a Refinement Meeting to help you get back on track.

3. When it needs to be completed or checked in on

The final important piece of every task is the due date - or check-in date. While it would be nice to just be able to work on every task at a leisurely pace and report on it when it is completely done, the reality is that many projects have tasks that are sequential, one leading to another leading to another. In this reality, it is important to keep track of how long tasks are taking and keep tabs on consistent progress. So, now that you have a well-defined task, the person in charge of the task can assess how long it will likely take to complete, or the group can decide what a good timeline would be for this task’s completion.

A simple example stemming from the “feature” example above is that the button in question should be implemented this week, with the results discussed during the next weekly meeting. The person responsible for this task should also make sure to add their presentation into the agenda for the meeting where this task will be followed up on.

Putting everything together

Taken altogether, we’ve gone over the Who, What, When? framework for putting together action items. If you can answer these three questions when asked about a certain task to the appropriate amount of detail, then every action item you come across in the future will be useful not only as a task to complete, but also as a piece of documentation to help better understand what conclusions were reached during that meeting.

One additional advantage of this framework is that it keeps things simple and straightforward. While having the answers to each part of the “Who, What, When?” framework is critical for every action item, you should also be mindful of how much time defining all three of these should take. Ideally, once you have identified that a task should be completed, answering these three questions can be done in under a minute, so as not to derail the conversation too much. If you do notice that properly defining a given task is taking too long (over 5 minutes) then it likely makes sense to take this conversation offline into a separate meeting with just the people involved in this task.

Keeping Action Items in a Safe Place

Finally, even if you go through all of these steps, all of those best practices will have gone out the door if you end up losing the action item or not being able to access it. For this reason, make sure that you either note down the action items assigned to you and their due dates somewhere you can easily access, or make sure that the meeting minutes are shared with everyone after the meeting.

A great compromise for these alternatives is having your minutes be accessible online through a cloud-based solution that lets you easily share your meeting minutes and action items with other members of your team, keeping everything organized and centralized in the process.

If you keep these simple elements in mind for your future action items, you will hopefully see an improvement in your team’s efficiency overall as you prepare task details up front and remove the need to rehash decisions that were already made in previous meetings. Best of luck!

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