What exactly makes an effective action step? Take a look at the following statements, and pick the one you think is the best example:
1. “I’ll do something about that next week.”
2. “I’ll figure out which college I want to attend by the end of the month.”
3. “I guess I probably ought to call her this week and make things right.”
4. “On Tuesday I’ll set aside time to clean out that entire drawer and put everything away.”
5. “I will phone my top five job opportunities and send them my resume.”
Creating an effective action step is the process of turning a goal into clear, committed action items you can put in your date book. Here are four simple tests you can use to evaluate an effective action step:
1. The Claritytest: I know exactly what I need to do
2. The Commitmenttest: I definitely will do this
3. The Date Booktest: I’ve broken this down to where I can put it in my date book
4. The Deadline test: I know when I’ve committed to have this done
So let’s go back and evaluate our five sample action steps and see how they hold up. Number four (“On Tuesday I’ll set aside time to clean out that entire drawer and put everything away”) is the example that passes all four tests. It is clear, committed, can be scheduled in a date book and has a timed deadline. By contrast, the first step (“I’ll do something about that next week”) fails the clarity test. What exactly are you going to do? Without naming a specific solution, it is too easy to temporize. It’s also pretty tough to hold a person accountable if you don’t know what is supposed to be done! Action steps must be clear, concrete and precise. To clarify a vague action step, simply ask: “Flesh that out: what exactly are you planning to do?”
“I’ll figure out which college I want to attend by the end of the month” fails the date book test. Figuring out which college to attend is a project that involves multiple action steps. To complete the project, you might research a number of schools on the Internet, call your top five and get a catalog, and maybe take a weekend and make an on-campus visit. Each of those sub-items is an action step that passes the date book test (“Friday night: research five schools from my list on the Internet”), but the original example is a project. To be an effective action step, you must be able to schedule the item on your calendar. For many clients, working the project down to the level of actual steps is very empowering.
The third example (“I guess I probably ought to call her this week and make things right”) fails the commitment test. The words “guess” and “probably” give it away. The client is considering taking this action, but has not yet made an internal commitment to do so. Don’t allow the client to equivocate on an action step! The person should either be able to say, “I will definitely do this,” or the action step should be modified so that the client can make that statement. Effective action steps are hard work. If we’ve not made and verbalized a clear commitment to the step, the chance that we’ll do it is not very high.
Sometimes a person will hesitate to commit because the action step depends on another person. For instance, if a client’s step is to “have a conversation with my sister about the estate this week,” he may not be able to get a hold of his sister. Because the outcome is not fully under the client’s control, this goal may not be attainable. Set a goal that you control by rewording the step in terms of what the client alone will do: “I’ll make at least three attempts to reach my sister and talk about the estate this week.”
The fifth prospective step (“I will phone my top five job opportunities and send them my resume”) fails the deadline test—by when will you have done this step? This is a common miscue. Correct it by asking the client, “When will you have that done by?”
Tony Stoltzfus is a best-selling author, leadership coach and master coach trainer and director of the Leadership Metaformation Institute. Additional information on the role of effective action steps in the coaching relationship can be found in Tony’s book, Leadership Coaching.