By: Paul Axtell
Any team leader knows that it’s what happens between project meetings that makes or breaks a project. And yet it’s often challenging to keep a team motivated and focused on getting agreed upon tasks done. Ideally you’ve checked that everyone is aligned and agreed on next steps but assigning tasks and deadlines is usually not enough.
After all, once you’ve left the meeting, things come up. Circumstances change. Priorities shift. Most people are working more hours than they want to work and still taking work home. And in many places, it’s generally accepted that people won’t do everything they’ve agreed to in a meeting. People don’t use “my dog ate it” as an excuse, but close to it. Just in the last week, I’ve heard, “My morning got away from me” and “Something else came up.” It’s hard to buck against this kind of culture but it’s possible.
Start by ending the meeting with clear agreements on specific actions and completion dates for each item. I love the phrase: Do thing X by time Y or call. Don’t automatically default to your next meeting date as the completion date for each action item. Choose a date that makes sense to the project and creates a sense of urgency. Remind people that they can negotiate on dates until they feel comfortable being able to deliver as promised.
Then ask people to communicate if one of their action items becomes at risk of non-delivery. This is not about perfection in delivery; it is about perfection in communication. It’s important to deliberately cultivate and coordinate commitments if you expect people to follow through.
Get a one-page summary of the meeting out within an hour if possible so the discussion and next steps stay on everyone’s radar.
Then assign someone to track and follow up on action items between the meetings. This is not about micromanaging or not trusting — this is simply good project management.
Keep a running tally of which items get done. How many of the agreed-upon action items are completed by the dates agreed upon? This record of your action item completion rate — your say/do ratio — will tell you how you are doing. Set a target. In my experience, a 60% completion rate is about average. Getting to 85% will give your team an incredible sense of accomplishment. But don’t expect perfection — it’s the overall pattern than matters.
Don’t let the tracking turn you into a task master. Be compassionate. Each person on your team has a complex life — much of which is unknown to you. You are not the only person asking for their time. People are usually on multiple teams and often have more than one person to whom they report. By being interested in each of your colleagues, finding time to chat, and working to understand their current reality, you can gain their respect and permission to ask them to do what they say they will do, reliably — almost every time.
Of course, when someone does drop the ball, don’t let non-performance go unchallenged but make it a gentle conversation when you discuss it. You shouldn’t think less of the person because they didn’t keep their word — it’s usually a cultural thing not an individual flaw. Remember that you are establishing a new norm. Role model the desired behavior and continually remind people of what is expected.
If all of the above isn’t working and you’re not hitting a completion rate that you’re comfortable with, you may want to address the issues head-on with your team. An open and honest conversation about keeping the agreed-upon commitments is constructive.
Here are the questions to ask of yourself and your team:
• Is each action item essential to completion of the project?
• At the time we commit, do we fully intend to do whatever it takes to deliver?
• Are we clear about what needs to be done, who will do it, and when it will be done?
• Do we have the ability to say no or negotiate when we can’t fully commit?
• Is it OK if someone follows up to check on our progress?
• Do we have a system to keep track of action items and their completion?
• Do we have an agreement to communicate if something comes up that might interfere with our completion of the task?
This problem-solving discussion will increase everyone’s level of awareness for making and keeping commitments as well as surface problems that keep them from doing so.
Getting to a higher level of completion on action items leads not only to exponential progress toward goals, but also to a tremendous sense of accomplishment — both personally and for the group.