IT Project Management: Putting the Action Back Into Action Items

How to follow up on action items more effectively, and without alienating those whose support you need.

by Rich Schiesser - Following up on action items is an important but often frustrating responsibility of project managers, team leads and various types of supervisors. The challenge is to verify that people are completing their action items on time without coming across like a drill instructor or an interrogator. The following is a simple technique to help you follow up on action items more effectively, and without alienating those whose support you need. I call this "The Seven Column Approach".

[ See also: Four things project managers can learn from base coaches | Project management: When and how to get users involved ]

This approach uses a seven column template shown below. Each column adds unique value to the effort of tracking action items. While this technique may seem straightforward, it is surprising to me how frequently supervisors fail to employ it or employ only a portion of it. For large, complex projects, products such as Microsoft Project may be more appropriate to manage the effort. But in the absence of such products, or for smaller projects or for when you are just starting out, this approach is a simple and efficient alternative.

Action Item List
# Date Assigned Description Resp Person ECD Rev ECD ACD
1 10-04-10 Developtest scripts for users Ed Smith 10-11 10-11
2 10-04-10 Conduct dry-run of test scripts Ty Adams 10-14 10-16 10-17

The first column simply enumerates the action items to make referencing them during status meetings easier. The second column records the date the action item was assigned. This can serve as a baseline to determine the actual length of time an action item requires, which can then be used for future reference. The assignment date is also helpful for projects that are likely to have ongoing revisions requiring ongoing action items.

The third, fourth and fifth columns, which comprise the center of the matrix, provide a description of the action item, the person who will be completing it, and the estimated completed date. These columns summarize what I would often tell my project managers: 'Know who is responsible for what by when.'

While the concept of these three columns is widely known and frequently used, there are a few elements about them that are occasionally overlooked:

  1. The importance of keeping descriptions clear, succinct and in a standard format. Those who record the action item are sometimes verbose, unclear or use poor grammar ... or all of these. I always advise my clients to keep the descriptions short (fewer than 20 words if possible), use correct grammar, and start the description with an action verb such as 'document' or 'implement'.
  2. The need to write the full name of the person responsible for the action item. Recording just the first name, or initials, or even the last name only can lead to ambiguity and confusion, especially on large projects that may have dozens of individuals involved. Use the full name to keep responsibilities clear. Another tip is to assign only one person per action item. If an action item is such that two or three people have responsibility for completing it, either make the action item smaller or pick one of the people as the single person responsible.
  3. The need to verify how reasonable the estimated completion date (ECD) is with the person responsible for meeting it. Ensure that the date is not just pulled out of the air but can realistically be met based on the scope of the task involved.

The sixth column provides one of the most important pieces of information as a process metric. The revised estimated completion date not only shows which action items (and the people responsible for them) did not meet their original completion dates, but also by how much. Metrics can be derived showing how many and which types of action items missed their dates. This information can be used to continually refine and improve the planning and estimating activities for managing projects. The final column lists the actual completion date to easily identify those items still open, and to provide metrics on the number completed on time or late, and by how much.

Summary: 9 quick tips for effectively following up on action items

  1. Describe each action item clearly and succinctly in proper grammar.
  2. Initiate description with an action verb and use a standard format.
  3. Write the full name of the person responsible for each action item.
  4. Assign only one person responsibility for each item.
  5. Verify completion date with person responsible for meeting it.
  6. Enumerate each action item.
  7. Record the date of assignment for each action item.
  8. Use revised estimated completion dates and retain the original ECDs.
  9. Record the actual completion date for each action item.

Try using the Seven Column Approach. It is an effective way to put the action of following up back into action items.

Rich Schiesser is author of IT Systems Management, the 2nd Ed. of which released in Feb. 2010 by Prentice Hall Professional, ISBN 0137025068, Copyright 2010 Pearson Education, Inc. For a full Table of Contents, please visit the publisher site:

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