Action planning is the process of turning your strategy and goals into action. Taking your ideas and planning how to make them reality.
In other words, action planning is working out what exactly you need to do to get where you want to be. Whether those are personal goals or organisational goals doesn’t matter, as the skills required are the same.
The best strategies, whether for life or work, include action planning as part of the strategic thinking. After all, it doesn’t matter how good your strategy is on paper if you can’t implement it. So action planning ought to be a crucial part of the strategizing. But often it’s not.
The Difference Between Strategy and Action Planning
Many companies seem to regard strategizing as some kind of ‘big picture’ exercise, not linked in any tangible way to reality. But that way madness lies.
In order to ensure that the organisation is ‘aligned’, that is, that everything and everyone within it is lined up and working towards the organisational strategy, everyone in the organisation needs to be able to explain and understand exactly how what they do fits into the overall strategy.
This can only be achieved when the organisation and leaders are very clear about what actions will lead the organisation to achieve its goals. Because what do people do on a day-to-day basis? Actions.
Our page: Strategic Thinking Skills sets out how you can create a strategic plan. The last stage of this is to identify the actions needed to make your plans a reality. This page provides more information and ideas about how to achieve that.
There are two big questions to address in action planning:
- What actions do we need to do to achieve the goals?
- What actions do we need to stop doing in order to achieve the goals?
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Breaking Down the Action Plan into Steps
Identify the broad actions needed to achieve each of your intermediate milestones.
This is relatively easy. Keep the actions broad at this stage, at a level of, for example, ‘Create marketing plan’, ‘Recruit sales team’ and so on.
Break each broad action down into smaller tasks
At this stage, you need to get into more detail. Maybe not at the level of ‘Write a letter to x about y’, but ‘Plan and execute a correspondence campaign that will get across these key messages’.
Identify who will take responsibility for each action
There is an easy rule here. If you can’t identify one individual, then you’re either not working at a level of sufficient detail in tasks, or have not moved to a high enough job responsibility level.
Every action should have one responsible owner.
It’s not necessarily that person’s job to do that task, but they have to take responsibility for it, and be able to explain what progress has been made on it, so they do have to be able to engage in sufficient detail. Yes, you could just identify the Board member responsible for the project, but you need to be able to drill down into the detail through the responsible owner, and know that nothing is being hidden. Unless this is a small project that can be handled by one person alone, it’s not much help to have a single person responsible for all the tasks.
This is a pragmatic approach to enable you to track progress, so you need to take a pragmatic approach to identifying those responsible: they need to know what’s going on day-to-day.
Work out what could possibly go wrong, and some contingency plans
This step is often called Risk Management, and it is a whole area in itself.
See our page Risk Management for more information.
Fundamentally, you or, more likely, the responsible owner for each action, need to take a look at the question ‘What could possibly go wrong?’. You or they then need to work out how likely that is to happen and how catastrophic it would be if it did happen. Having done so, they need to take action to make the most likely and/or catastrophic events either less likely or less catastrophic - or both.
Take a long hard look at what else is going on in the organisation and whether it’s contributing to the strategy.
This is surprisingly difficult to do. Areas which are not contributing to the overall strategy, or at best are something of a backwater, are usually very aware of that fact, and also of the danger to their jobs created by that situation. They will therefore go out of their way to hide the position from anyone else, often using high-tech language, or management jargon. One former Chancellor of the Exchequer is said to have adopted a novel approach to this kind of obfuscation. If his ministerial colleagues could not explain quickly and simply what a budget was supposed to do, it was immediately removed from the balance sheet of that department, and returned to the Treasury.
Similarly, one useful tool for cutting through the jargon is to demand the ‘elevator pitch’. Ask each department or team to tell you, before the lift gets to the top floor, what exactly they do, and how it contributes to the organisation’s overall strategy. Waffling isn’t an option with just thirty seconds to explain. If the answer’s not acceptable, then you have a choice: cut out the work or put up with it.
Stop those actions and areas which are either not contributing to the strategy or actively damaging it.
Perhaps less surprisingly now you have read the previous section, this can be one of the most difficult elements of action planning. Stopping something which has gained momentum is often very hard. People become committed to it emotionally, and also invest a lot in being the organisational expert in that area. This is therefore not something to undertake lightly. It may be best to focus on those areas, if any, that are actively damaging the strategy, rather than just not contributing.
Stop Unnecessary Work
Stopping work that is not contributing to the desired strategic outcomes may be easier to achieve if you have involved most or all of the organisation in strategizing and action planning.
If so, the problem areas will now be clear to all, and a change of focus can be discussed openly. Stopping work only becomes a real issue when the strategy has been drawn up behind closed doors by a ‘chosen few’, and everyone else feels it has been imposed.
Good strategic planning and thinking can avoid this problem, as well as drawing on all the resources at your command.
In both work and life more generally, it is easier to see progress if you can break tasks down into more manageable chunks.
The aim of your action planning should be to identify those manageable chunks, and who is going to do them, then allocate the action.
The final part of your action planning should, of course, be ongoing monitoring of progress against desired outcomes and outputs. After all, an action plan is only as good as the work it achieves.