The last step in the strategic planning process is one that is often overlooked —or simply missed because time runs out—and yet, it’s one of the most important: the action steps that will lead to the successful completion of your objectives.
We need to ensure that we have well-formed objectives before we dive into how to properly map out action steps. The classic approach to vetting an objective is to use the SMART approach, ensuring that your objective is specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely.
But, the approach I've found to be just as effective is to ask yourself two questions: 1) Is it possible and reasonable to schedule a party to celebrate achieving this objective because we can measure its success? 2) when can we schedule that party?
Once we know we have a solid objective we can turn our attention to the execution and implementation of the objective. Here are eight things we need to consider for solid action plans:
One person must be responsible and accountable for tracing the progress towards each objective, keeping the team informed, ensuring the action steps are occurring in a timely fashion, and adjusting the actions as reality teaches us what needs to shift.
Each objective needs to have a series of action steps that lay out a clear path throughout the year on how it can be achieved. If the objective is the "what," then the action steps are the "how’s". What's important to remember here is that the action steps need to be clear and actionable steps versus vague ideas or thoughts.
Each action step needs to have one person responsible for leading the action. This does not need to be the person who is the owner of the overall objective and in fact, in many cases responsibility for the various action steps is spread between a number of people.
For each action step, determine who will support the person responsible. This can be multiple people. The key is that they are not responsible for the action or outcome; they are simply acting as a support in some capacity.
For each action step, keeping the right people in the communication loop is critically important, as multiple actions may have effects on one another from a timing and resource perspective. Key people may need to understand the state of progress around your actions in order to see how they affect other actions and objectives.
Metrics and Budget
To be clear on what success looks like with an action step, each one must have a metric that tells us that the action is complete. Concurrently you may require resources that need to be budgeted to achieve the action step. A great example of this would be if you needed to survey your customers and you do not have the internal resources to effectively run the survey or want to protect anonymity: using an outside resource will require money that may not be included in your current operating budget.
Think of the milestone date as the date we need to begin the action step in order to reach our completion date. The reason milestone dates are important is that somehow we were all subconsciously programmed during high school and university that the best time to start writing an essay that's due on Friday morning is Thursday night.
This it the date that we plan to have the action step completed.
Once you have each of your action steps properly framed out using the method above, look back and see how everything fits together. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
1. Are my action steps clear and actionable and do I know exactly what I need to do? In three months when we review this at our quarterly “review, evaluate, and revise” session, will I understand what I meant?
2. Are the completion dates consistent with the order that the action needs to be done in?
3. Have I stacked too many of my completion dates. For instance, are many of my actions due at the end of the quarter (which can make for a manic last week of quarter-end)?
4. Are the right people being kept in the loop?
5. Have I run my plans past everyone who is responsible and supportive to make sure I haven't missed anything or gotten off-track?
Well-formed objectives are achieved only through clear action steps that cascade into a plan of ‘how’ we're going to achieve ‘what’ we came up with at our strategic plan. As you go through this the first time you may feel that the process is quite intense and time consuming. I can guarantee you that it's far easier to get this right from the beginning when your whole team is together, than it is to try to back-fill later on.
You can download a free Excel template with the framework I’ve spoken about in this column from my blog.