3 Questions to Better Actions

We’ve all heard of SMART goals before. Goals that are SMART are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Actionable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

There are variations to those words, but this acronym exists to provide a set of heuristics or guidelines to action items. The idea being that if the action item meets these guidelines, you have a quality action item.

For many, there is an lack to hygiene to the actions coming out of meetings. Quite often, people leave a meeting with a lack of any clarity as to who is doing what. Everyone thinks someone else has some action on their plate.

Places that operate like this benefit from SMART goals. It demands that attention and critical details be added to the action so that it is meaningful.

Unfortunately, I don’t think SMART goals work quite so well. The main problem I see with SMART goals that while it sounds good and is easy to talk about, it is hard to know you’ve got it right. “Specific,” is a good example. Given a group of people with different levels of information and tolerances for details, “Specific,” can be any number of things. Actionable and relevant also fall into this highly-personal opinion of things. An action of, “Fix the broken code,” can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Its test of relevance has mixed results as does the test of actionable.

These differences in individuals that exist in meetings make SMART goals a bit tricky to implement without guidance. So, while the idea of SMART goals are really quite powerful, the way in which people try to make them I think can use some work.

Recently I’ve developed a variation to SMART goals that I believe has been helpful. When a group brings up action items I make a declaration about what is needed in the action items. This declaration goes like this:

Any action item must be able to answer 3 questions:

  1. How will we do this?
  2. How will we know it was a success or not?
  3. When will we check?

If you look at these questions they speak directly to aspects of SMART goals, but because I’m phrasing them as questions it makes the testing of the heuristics a lot more obvious.

Now I used to have a different question for number one, which went, “What will we do,” but I found that this evoked a an answer that better spoke to the purpose of the effort instead of the plan of action.

When I’ve brought these questions to my peers I’ve received some interesting questions around the, “When will we check,” question. This question isn’t meant to create a deadline. It’s meant as a coaching question. Sometimes the actions people create are fairly large and ambitious. The third question is one that a facilitator or group to use to prompt breaking the action apart into smaller pieces that incrementally get us our result.

An example dialog may go like this:

When will we check? I think next month if things go well. Is there something we can do that would let us check next week? Well, I guess if we started with…

Admittedly these questions aren’t a silver bullet, they are actually quite difficult for groups to grapple with the first few times. While people have a good idea of what they want to do, it isn’t always common to break it down in a way that is clear to a group. Asking how they will evaluate that action is also something that is often completely foreign to a lot of people. This question also provides a good coaching opportunity, because there is a tendency to come up with measurements that take more effort than the action. Suggesting a poll done by a vote may be all the group needs to say that things worked.

If using this is something you want to try, I’d recommend giving people around 10 minutes to develop their first actions that answer these questions as they develop action items.