Be An Action Hero: Overcoming The Curse of Inaction

Let’s play a quick round of “Have you ever…”

  • Have you ever left a meeting where everyone made great decisions, only to meet again weeks later and realize nothing’s gotten done?
  • Have you ever been trapped in a never-ending email chain that got increasingly confusing as more people replied, got looped in, forwarded, replied again?
  • Have you ever been given a strategy document, but had no idea what you were supposed to do with it?
  • Have you ever received feedback from a manager that felt overly critical because you didn’t know what to do with it?

If you answered yes to any of the above, then you’ve experienced what I like to call the curse of inaction.

Let’s face it: taking action is hard, especially when you’re working with others. People naturally gravitate toward the easiest way out, and a lot of the time, the easiest thing to do is nothing. (Or to talk about doing something instead of actually doing it, which is pretty much the same as doing nothing.)

As modern strategists, we don’t just help clients identify and understand their problems. We implement solutions, test them, adjust them and try again. That means changing mindsets, breaking through organizational quagmires, reinventing products, pursuing new markets and more. In other words, we have to overcome the curse of inaction and spark ideas into action.

So how do we take “action items” — whether they’re shared via email, Slack, decks or meeting notes — and turn them into stuff that actually happens? Here are eight tips that work for me.

  • Empathy & Context: Put yourself in your end user’s shoes. Create action items with them in mind, and provide additional context. Remember that your decisions will come to life in the real world, out there, not in your conference room.
  • Brevity: Be brief. Get to the point.
  • Use Action Words: If I had a dollar for every action item I’ve seen that lacked any real action words, I’d take the action of buying a yacht. “Consider” is not an action word. Neither is “remember.” “Make,” “create,” “survey,” “compare,” “develop” — these are action words.
  • Focus: Stay on topic. If necessary, link out to related documents. Getting bogged down in tangents is a great way to ensure that nothing gets done.
  • Clarity: Make your action items as specific as possible. Assign everything to an owner. If a decision was made, say so.
  • Information Hierarchy: Break action items out in discrete steps. Put the most important ones first.
  • Design Emphasis: This is especially important if you’re writing a long email or meeting agenda. Use visual design to increase clarity or importance. But don’t overdo it: If half the text is bold, it loses impact.
  • Inspiration: Remind people why you’re doing this, and how excited you are about the outcome. Action is one part knowing what to do and one part wanting to do it.

That’s it! Now go make something happen.

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Juliann Babb