The Joys and Beauty of Action Planning

Often, we find that organizations are more likely to need action planning over strategic planning. From a practical standpoint, the world is changing so quickly that many times we create strategic plans that look many years out, but variables change such as technology, budgets, leadership administrations, etc. that shift everything quickly. There are many benefits and practical reasons to proceed with action planning. What is action planning and how is it different from strategic planning? Action planning works with a specific task, priority or initiative that can be part of a strategic plan’s strategic direction or goal, or it can be an independent project that needs direct attention. One easy way to address an action plan is that it’s objective is to pursue S.M.A.R.T.—Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Results driven and Timebound goals. Action planning is appropriate for projects or initiatives that have twelve months or less to complete. They may even involve segments of something greater that needs to roll out in phases, so that you can break down plans in smaller chunks rather than large and unmanageable initiatives which can be daunting and therefore nothing gets done and plans get shelved, which can often be the case.

We like action planning for many reasons. One, they can enable teams to get something done which boosts morale and creates can-do attitude over a nothing -ever -gets done -why -bother attitude.  Action planning also allows groups to easily tackle some of that low hanging fruit that is a no brainer but falls by the wayside because people get caught up and bogged down with big picture vision when they just need to get something done to feel like “bigger” things are possible. These things don’t require long, bureaucratic procedures and “task forces” and “sub-committees” and a bunch of other groups to bog things down. Action plans are typically designed by a small and lean group of makers and worker bees, not “ideas” people and puffed up advisory boards. The smaller an action team, the better and quicker things can get done. Ideally, action planning teams are made up of two to six people, eight maximum, who know what needs to happen and how to execute. We do not recommend putting people on action teams who are over-extended or off on sabbatical or leave or in the middle of a personal crisis, otherwise you will have dead weight and are setting a team up for immobility because so and so is too busy or dropped the ball and now everyone resents them, and others are picking up their slack. There may be people who seem logical for a team, but because of their current situation cannot participate fully, so leave them out. That person can be useful in other indirect ways, but if they can’t do the project right now, don’t bring them in. You will be setting yourselves up for failure and it will be your own fault for not seeing this. So, don’t do it! Figure out someone else, and if a project relies on one person’s “heroic” leadership and expertise, delay that action plan until they are available to participate fully.  Also, keep the naysayers and saboteurs out of these sessions. It’s enough that they drag others down daily, but action planning is no place for them.

Another beautiful thing about action planning is that the planning session itself can be facilitated quickly in a 90 minute to four- hour session depending on the size and scope of the project. Ideally, a two to three- hour session should be sufficient time to get things done thoroughly and efficiently unless some derailing force comes into play, but that is where it is important to have a facilitator shepherding the session keeping the process on track. Action planning should never be used for a project that is going to bring about quagmires that can’t be resolved quickly. A mindset of compromise for the greater good is essential. It is also important that when a leader taps people to be on an action team, that the participants know their goal and purpose before heading into a session. There is nothing worse than people showing up in a room for action planning with no reference or understanding of their reason for being there, so it is a leadership responsibility to make sure that everyone is clear on their objective ahead of time and that they agree to be there and fully participate. One time a leader put together five separate action teams to work on segments of an overall initiative. When each of those teams showed up for the planning session, very few of the participants knew what it was they were showing up for or why they were there.  The leader showed up for each session to kick it off and each of those five sessions spent the first hour just getting people on the same page for why they were there which also resulted in a lot of pushback from participants disagreeing on being there at all. That is not the time to resolve philosophical differences or discord and it was directly led back to a leadership shortcoming in their failure to launch. The leader ended up taking front and center, (a big no-no), and declaring their vision which as you can imagine created an environment of tension and conflict where some shut down and some pushed back hard and a nasty confrontation ensued. Again, action planning groups are coming together and starting from a place of full understanding and harmony for their being there. That doesn’t mean that they can’t disagree or hammer through different ideas and ways of getting things done, but everyone should be operating in the spirit of moving towards accomplishment. It is not a place to bring contentious issues and has no business being an action plan then until things are resolved and amenable.

The action planning session process itself is rooted in practicality. The session covers about eight steps that are naturally sequenced and designed for success and excitement. We start with “The Givens,” this is where the leader shows up to kick it off and states the facts. It covers the things we know walking into a session such as the who, what, why, when and how that need answering. For example, let’s say our action group is there to create a fundraising plan. The Givens, or what we know right now might be:

  • We need to raise $1.5 million for the academic year
  • We have 10 months to do it
  • We need to produce a College newsletter that highlights programs
  • We need to have a year- end celebration/fundraising event
  • We need to tap into to our alumni more meaningfully
  • We have a $30,000 budget to put towards our efforts
  • We need to create an advising center as a result of our fundraising

The Givens set the parameters, size and scope of the project or plan. It’s always important to have the leader present at this point of the session to show support, direction and expectations of the project. It both buoys the team’s understanding and eliminates second guessing. It provides the opportunity for clarity.

Next, we look at the “Victory” or a quick visioning of the future to see how we will know our project was successful. It allows us to set the bar of our success factors and hopefully gets people excited at the possibilities of our project. It’s important for teams to be able to “see” their success and know what they are heading towards.

After the happy visioning of the victory, we must look at our current reality, which is a brief environmental scan, to be aware of our strengths, weaknesses, benefits and dangers. It allows us to take a snapshot of where we are presently standing and taking an honest look at what is before us. It can be both painful and uplifting but necessary regardless.  It is a moment of consciousness and a way to help us set our intentions realistically and mindfully.

Next step is to create a team commitment or brief charter. In one or two sentences we state what we are committed to and our attitude towards achieving it. It is a great thing to go back to when the team is working and six months down the road they ask, “What are we doing and why again?” It anchors the team.

Then we move into key actions; organize into smaller teams or delegations, plot the actions on a calendar and determine the resources that are needed for each actionable item. It is the who, what, where, when, why, how of each actionable item. It is where the team drills down and gets into minutia. (Understand now why we don’t recommend “ideas” people for this?)

Lastly, we step back and look at our plan and make any adjustments to quickly launch into action. Remember how we talked about SMART? This is the SMART all broken down piece by piece to create the bigger picture. TA-DA! Success. Beautiful. Simple. Boom. Done and done. Celebrate! Action planning gives gratification that we can get something done and therefore, maybe we could take on something more long term or strategic. It empowers us with hope and confidence to accomplish bigger things. And…it builds community at a grassroots level which we feel is the most profound step towards truly systemic change.

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