Process Buzzwords: What is an Action Item?

If you’re new to business vernacular, you may feel confused or unsure about the term “action item.” An action item is really just a fancy term for a task or activity. Action items are often associated with meetings, indicating the to-dos resulting from a discussion. 

The action item is known by many names, like:

  • Task
  • To-do
  • Assignment
  • Follow-up item
  • Next steps

In this video, ProcessDriven CEO Layla Pomper explains the term and breaks down five common mistakes people make with action items and how to correct them. Read on for the details, and use the timestamps to jump to specific video sections for more information.

How to Use Action Items

On the surface, using action items is the same as creating tasks.

Effective action items (tasks) have three main parts (timestamp 00:55):

WHAT needs to happen?

WHO is going to do it?

WHEN will it be done?

If you keep track of tasks and lists in your head, you might consider tracking action items as overkill. However, there are rewards for putting in the extra effort.

The Benefits of Using Action Items

Clarity: Everyone understands what must be done.

Accountability: One person is responsible for task completion.

Prioritization: Due dates ensure the most urgent tasks are completed first.

Collaboration: Action items prevent duplicate efforts and encourage coordination.

Progress Tracking: It’s easy to see accomplished goals and milestones.

Documentation: Provides a record for future planning, audits, or performance reviews.

Remember, action item success comes down to specificity. You can’t assume every team member will interpret an action item similarly. 

Five Common Action Item Mistakes 

1. Missing Pieces (timestamp 03:50)

Missing details lead to misunderstandings. The minimum requirements for an effective action item are: who, what, and when. If you want something done in a specific way, add the how. 

Vague: Research llamas.

Detailed: Liam will research the efficiency of llamas as predator protection for domestic farm animals and compile a report of key findings and recommendations, with a first draft due on Thursday.

See the difference between a vague action item and one that’s highly specific?

Pro tip: Set one owner per action item. It’s a lot easier to fumble a task when it’s “We need to send attendee confirmations” rather than “Alice will send attendee confirmations by Friday.“

2. The Desired Outcome is Unclear (timestamp 05:05)

Word choice makes a big difference in action item outcomes. Focus on the results or desired conclusion rather than how you get there. It’s also nice to know when you’re done!

Unclear: Learn about SEO.

Clear: Attend a credentialed SEO certification course.

Clarity is vital to getting the results you want. Learning about SEO could encompass any number of activities and any length of time. We can’t restate it enough: never assume everyone will interpret a task the same way. If you ask two people to list popular zoo animals, one might give you a top 10 while the other turns in a 5-page spreadsheet.

3. Not Using Them Enough (timestamp 06:50)

Action items aren’t just useful for meetings. You can use them whenever you communicate with other people. Because no two people share the same experience, action items establish that we’re on the same page and have a shared understanding of what happens next. Without this clarification, your idea and my idea of what needs to be done, when, and by whom can wildly vary. Personally or professionally, action items are handy whenever you want to set clear expectations.

4. Confusing Them with Other Things (timestamp 08:15)

Another common mistake people make with action items is confusing them with something else. Action items are not the same as an action plan, discussion items (topics for discussion), or item-items (physical products). Action items are simply tasks or to-dos.

An action plan is a collection of action items necessary to achieve an overall goal. A simple webinar action plan might look like this:

1. Write a 15-minute script outline – copywriter, Monday

2. Set up and test webinar software – Mary in IT, Wednesday

3. Create email invites – graphic designer, Thursday


5. Not in Your Process (timestamp 09:55)

Regularly using action items is a habit worth building. The easiest way is to make listing action items the last step in group meetings or 1:1 discussions. It’s a great way to wrap things up while ensuring everyone understands what they are responsible for moving forward.

Three simple ways we use action items here at ProcessDriven:

  • Add action item sections to our meeting agendas.
  • Assign one person (action grabber) to record only action items during team meetings.
  • Add action items as tasks in our work management platform.

This all ensures that anything discussed won’t be overlooked.

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