What Are Action Plans, How Can They Help, and What Are We Supposed to Do to Make Them Work?

Do we get a feeling sometimes we do too much but we’re not getting anywhere? 

Roughly 75% of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) projects fail, and that’s because of lack of planning. (https://www.mbtmag.com/erp/article/13228432/4-valuable-lessons-from-major-erp-fails). (ERP is an information technology enabled planning system that responds to the market environment and optimizes company resources). 

From a Harvard Business Review article:

“In 2016, it was estimated that 67% of well-formulated strategies failed due to poor execution. There are many explanations for this abysmal failure rate, but a 10-year longitudinal study on executive leadership [sic] showed one clear reason. A full 61% of executives told us they were not prepared for the strategic challenges they faced upon being appointed to senior leadership roles. It’s no surprise, then, that 50%–60% of executives fail within the first 18 months of being promoted or hired.”

https://hbr.org/2017/11/executives-fail-to-execute-strategy-because-theyre-too-internally-focused

In other words, not an insignificant few organizations and highly-placed executives aren’t succeeding and we can point to poor planning and resulting ineffective execution thereof as one, if not the sole, cause for it. 

The basic building block of a plan is the action, task, or step.  Essentially, what we can call the action plan.   

An action plan is a task or a set of steps that directs a person of accountability towards a goal or objective.  The ideal action plan has six (6) attributes, which can be symbolized by an acronym: SMART-C.   

  1. It is Specific
  2. It is Measurable
  3. It is Attainable
  4. It is Realistic
  5. It is Time-bound
  6. It is Challenging

An action plan is specific in that it clearly spells out the details of the action or step to be taken.  These details include who would be the accountable actor of the plan, what the plan is, what it will accomplish, what it would cost, and when the step would start and end, at least in the terms of a target or estimate. 

It is measurable in that the accomplishment of the step manifests itself in a manner that can be observed. 

It is attainable.  The action or step is possible to accomplish.

It is realistic.  The person accountable for the step has the capabilities to accomplish the action or step.

The plan is time-bound, that is, it has a deadline.  But not just a deadline but a connection with other action plans in getting it done so other plans would also get done. 

It is challenging.  As much as it should be attainable and realistic, the action or step requires innovation and collaboration on the part of the accountable person and his team to accomplish the step or task. 

Note that accountability for an action plan lies with an individual.  It’s advised to not make more than one person responsible for an action plan.  This is because if groups of people become accountable, it will just be hard to pinpoint who should be the owner of the action plan. 

A SMART-C action plan works best via a matrix:

Figure 1: Action Plan Matrix

Action plans in a matrix with an overall goal provides clarity of direction.  A matrix also spells out in one view who’s the owner, the timetable for action, and status or commentaries about the plan. 

There’s no real limit on how an action plan should look.  For instance, one can make an action plan matrix more comprehensive:

Figure 2: More Comprehensive Action Plan Matrix

In the above case, the action plan includes “milestones” and “success criteria” which serve as guides for knowing when an action plan has been accomplished and when it succeeds, respectively. 

There’s no real rule on how comprehensive an action plan matrix should be.  What’s advised is that the ones who make them follow the SMART-C criteria as much as possible. 

The people I’ve worked with usually have their own ways for action plans.  Their matrices often vary a lot.  But when it came to which ones really succeeded, it was often those that followed the above criteria.

It should be noted that action plans work best with overall goals that are clear, mandated by, and/or agreed with the top leadership of the organization.  I’ve seen many beautifully prepared action plans flop because the people who did them didn’t realize that the overall goals of the plans weren’t truly priorities of their bosses. 

Leaders sometimes enumerate goals but really don’t put too much focus on them.  Action planners therefore get discouraged and later feel that action planning is just another waste of time. 

Goals matter.  Otherwise action plans are just simply indeed a waste. 

If leaders don’t have clear goals for the organization, action planners can still attempt to thresh out matrices based on their conclusions from their day-to-day activities.  Action plans can still help though it would be much better if leaders get their act together by clarifying goals.  And remain focused on them. 

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