It happens all too often—everyone is full of energy in the meeting, ideas flow freely, and people commit to making things happen. The meeting ends, and everyone goes their separate ways.
A week later, the promising ideas sit untouched. No one’s sure what steps, if any, have been taken. Meeting participants ask whether there was something they were supposed to be doing.🤦
Historically, properly managing meeting tasks and action items involved messy paperwork. Meeting leaders had to come up with their own systems for following up with attendees. Jotting notes onto agendas and maintaining task list spreadsheets becomes a lot of work as the number of projects and team members increases.
Yet, meeting tasks and action items are what propel an organization forward. There’s simply no way to progress without making decisions and acting on them.
Efforts can fall flat if meeting tasks and action items aren’t well managed. Fortunately, tools exist today that make it much easier to stay on top of tasks.
How can meeting leaders better manage meeting tasks and action items, ensuring critical next steps happen? What can they do during a meeting, before everyone parts ways, to keep the momentum going?
Here, we’ll break the answer down with seven simple tips.
Make Meetings Matter with Good Action Items
Decision-making meetings without follow-through are a waste of team members’ time.
Gathering everyone together for a meeting takes resources and logistical commitments. To make it worth the effort, attendees need to leave with clear action items and an understanding of how their assigned action item helps to reach larger goals.
Action items are the next steps necessary to achieve your goals after a meeting. They can be handled or easily led by a single person. They are typically created when decisions are made in a meeting about how to execute a plan or work towards a goal. ✅
Because action items are created in the midst of a meeting, it’s important for meeting leaders to document them in real-time and ensure they are managed for follow-up. After all, if no one executes on an action item, then the next steps towards a goal are never taken!
When checking off meeting tasks, creating action items, and taking next steps to conquer the world (or whatever your organization’s goal is), keep these tips in mind to raise your chances of success. 👇
1. Write action items using an action item template.
How do you write action items that are set up for success? Start by using a meeting action item template such as this one:
“[TASK OWNER] will complete [SPECIFIC TASK] by [DEADLINE].”
How you write action items is important. The task, its owner, and the deadline must be clear. Otherwise, the action item can easily slip through the cracks due to misunderstanding.
As an example, here are some weak vs. strong action items:
WEAK ACTION ITEM: Peter will take care of the TPS reports.
STRONG ACTION ITEM: Peter will file the TPS reports with Sandra by EOD today.
WEAK ACTION ITEM: We will submit a proposal to present at the Dunder Mifflin Paper Conference.
STRONG ACTION ITEM: Pam will write a proposal draft for the Dunder Mifflin Paper Conference and share it with the team at the next meeting for review.
WEAK ACTION ITEM: Do inventory at the apothecary.
STRONG ACTION ITEM: Moira will take inventory of all items on the floor and in storage at Rose Apothecary on Wednesday and report the numbers on Thursday.
Ask everyone to write action items down to help with accountability. You can also use meeting notes software like Hugo to share agendas and assign action items to specific individuals for easy follow-up.
2. Ensure action items are clear.
Action items should be understood by everyone in the room, but most importantly by the person assigned to each one.
Often, understanding falls apart when a meeting leader fails to define the specific task. “Do inventory,” for example, could be misunderstood by someone new to the task or if inventory gets completed in different ways.
“Take inventory of all items on the floor and in storage” is more specific. It may even be necessary to follow up with the task assignee directly after the meeting to make sure they know where to find inventory forms, any policies on how to count damaged inventory, and other details.
Define clear next steps and confirm that meeting attendees understand these steps.
Action items don’t need to be complete SMART goals, but it doesn’t hurt to take a page out of the effective goal-making handbook when it comes to making them. Make action items specific, measurable, and attainable to ensure success.
In your action items, answer questions like…
- “What specifically needs to be done to reach this goal?”
- “How will we know we’ve done it?”
- "Are the desired results reasonably achievable by someone in this meeting?”
3. Ensure action item assignees have what they need.
The role of each participant towards meeting a goal needs to be clear-cut to avoid confusion and stagnation. Additionally, action items need to be reasonably achievable by their assignee.
Does Peter know where to find the TPS reports? Does he know how to file them with Sandra?
What information does he need to complete the reports? Where should he go if he has questions?
One way to make sure that people assigned to action items have what they need to complete them is to simply ask. The question “Do you have everything you need to move forward with this task?” goes a long way!
4. Confirm that designees are up to the task.
Besides having everything they need, action item designees also need the time and energy to commit to their tasks. If you’re piling too many tasks on one person, they can easily become overwhelmed and fall behind.
Too often, leaders assign a task without checking in with the person they’ll be following up with. This leads to unfinished action items. Confirm with the designee out loud at the meeting that they’re up to the task. If they’re not, perhaps someone else can step in.
This process has the double benefit of acting as a tiny check-in with your team member. Asking out loud also means that a scribe or meeting transcription software captures the action item.
A scribe is responsible for recording meeting minutes, or what is said in a meeting. When a scribe records action items in a meeting, it makes it possible to share them with team members who couldn’t make the meeting. It also makes them available for everyone’s future reference, increasing accountability and the ability to follow up.
5. Highlight action items in your notes.
We take so many meeting notes, it’s easy to imagine how action items can get lost among them.
There are a couple of ways to avoid losing your action items.
One option is to put action items all at the bottom or the top of your notes page so that they stand out from everything else and are easy to find when it’s time to follow up with people.
A second option is to literally highlight (or underline, star, etc) any action item in-line in your notes. For longer meetings, this helps leave action items in the context of the rest of the meeting note, but still draws extra attention to work that needs to be done.
Some meeting management software such as Hugo provide built-in templates with designated areas for meeting tasks and next steps. These templates help with meeting preparation and make it easy to both stay on task and follow up with the meeting action list after the meeting is over.
Fill them out during the meeting to initiate action items and meeting task management. The software will track items as they are completed or become overdue.
6. Assign a person and due date to every action item.
We’ve talked about this, but it’s important to do this before the meeting is over, so that participants understand their role moving forward.
An assignee may, of course, have help from other team members. However, an action item should be manageable for one responsible party.
The idea isn’t to overload one person with a monumental meeting task for them to delegate to others. Instead, make action items simple enough for an individual to tackle with a little collaboration.
This collaborative enablement, as well as the autonomy encouraged by assigning individuals to action items in a meeting, is further discussed in our book, 10X Culture.
In it, we describe how Steve Jobs came up with the Directly Responsible Individual (DRI) to solve problems with accountability at Apple. This DRI is the assigned person to a meeting task, and having one helps ensure that action items have clear leaders for efficient completion.
Here's an example of meeting notes where all action items have been assigned as concrete next steps:
7. Push tasks into the system where you manage your work.
Today’s tech-savvy, productivity-tool-rich work environment offers a number of collaborative management systems for businesses and organizations.
Whether your team members use one of these platforms or a more analog method, action items should be immediately pushed to wherever your
team tracks projects. This is most effective if the push is a part of the expected workflow associated with running a meeting.
Don't let your meeting action list languish and then get forgotten. If tasks need to be added to a specific software system, don't delay.
Some meeting software offers meeting task management directly in an app; Hugo does things a little better.
Thanks to these integrations, meeting participants and leaders can create tasks in an organizations’ collaborative systems directly from within their meeting notes. Rather than building a new system, we work with the one you already have. This means that what you do during a meeting follows the team once the meeting is over.
Common Questions About Action Items
Some frequently asked questions about action items include:
What is the difference between an action item and a task?
A task on its own is simply that: something to be done. Some examples of tasks include refilling the printer’s paper tray, sending an email, or scheduling a meeting.
When you add a deadline and assign someone to complete a task, it then becomes an action item. “Rochelle, please schedule a kickoff meeting by this afternoon,” for example, is an action item.
How do you follow up on action items?
In order to be sure an action item gets completed, you must have a system for following up with them. There are many ways to accomplish this. In the days of paper agendas and handwritten meeting notes, people would write action items down. Then, they would add them to the next meeting’s agenda for follow-up, or schedule follow-up on a calendar.
Today, there is an abundance of meeting software available to streamline action item follow-up. Hugo, for example, lets you assign one or more people to each action item and easily tracks which items have and have not been completed.
How do you track action items effectively?
Tracking action items effectively is tricky. Once people leave a meeting, there’s a tendency to go back to working in our own silos. You could come up with a manual system to track action items using paper agendas or spreadsheets. However, that quickly becomes cumbersome for big teams.
A better option is to look into meeting agenda software with action item tracking capabilities. These tools automatically track action items once they’ve been assigned, making it easy for you to see what’s done and not done at a glance:
Better Meeting Task Management Means More Productivity
When meeting software is collaborative both in-app and out, organizations simply run better.
With meeting leaders and participants able to initiate tasks as soon as they are deemed necessary, tracking their progress and ensuring follow-through after a meeting is over becomes easy.
Ready to take meeting task and action item management to a new level?