Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 24, Issue 13;   March 27, 2024: Allocating Action Items

Allocating Action Items


From time to time in meetings we discover tasks that need doing. We call them "action items." And we use our list of open action items as a guide for tracking the work of the group. How we decide who gets what action item can sometimes affect our success.
An informal meeting in a lounge

An informal meeting in a lounge. Meetings happen in more places than just conference rooms and cyberspace. Wherever they occur, a framework for tracking our work gives meetings structure and guides our discussions. Action items — lists of small tasks that need ongoing attention — can provide the structure we need.

Image by RDNE Stock project, courtesy Pexels.com.

One pattern frequently observed in meetings at all levels of the org chart is the act of allocating an action item to someone who then becomes its owner. In terms of a commonly used framework known as RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed), the action item's owner is usually regarded as "Responsible." [Smith 2005.2] We allocate action items to people in different ways. How people deal with their action items is determined, in part, by the way the items are allocated to them.

In what follows, We allocate action items to people in different ways.
How people deal with their action items is determined,
in part, by the way the items are allocated to them.
I use the names Rachel or Robert (R for Resonsible) to refer to the person Responsible for the action item — in RACI terminology, the "doer." In some meetings, for some topics, someone is authorized to allocate action items. In other situations, no one person is so authorized, but the meeting Chair can nevertheless press an individual to accept an action item. In any case, I'll use the name Alfred (A for Allocator) to refer to the allocator.

In this post, I describe six different patterns of allocating action items, suggesting some of the risks associated with each.

Allocation in absentia
In this pattern, Rachel is absent from the meeting when Alfred allocates an action item to her. She's unaware of any discussion of the action item — not its history, nor its purpose, nor how difficult it might be, nor how urgently it might be needed. She'll need to determine all this background information — and, indeed, the very fact that she is now responsible — from those who were in attendance. And because people are people, some of the bits of information she gathers will likely conflict with other bits.
If an action item must be allocated to someone in absentia, it's best to manage the risk of post-meeting contradictions and confusions by documenting the meeting discussion in much greater detail than would otherwise occur.
Allocation without permission
To allocate an action item to Robert without his permission, Alfred adopts a humble tone and says something like, "Robert, I'm putting you down as lead on this, OK?" If Robert hasn't objected, and if he might not have had a chance to object, he cannot easily object now. If he does so at this point, he risks seeming to be uncooperative or — what's worse — seeming not to be a "team player." In effect, Alfred has manipulated Robert into accepting the action item.
In such cases, Robert might not have the time or skills or background to undertake the item. But Alfred has put Robert in a position in which Robert can't offer reasons why he (Robert) is a poor choice to take the action item. The risk is that there might be real reasons why Robert is a poor choice, and why Robert might be unable to give the action item the attention it requires.
Allocation over objections
Compared to allocating without permission, allocating an action item to Rachel over her objections is even less likely to produce the desired outcome. Objections publicly expressed are almost always valid — and well known to be so — because the objector pays a high social price for attempting to decline the allocation for flimsy reasons. That's why objectors express their reservations only when they feel they will be seen as reluctant truth-tellers. The likelihood that allocation over objections will produce a disappointing outcome is high.
But there are even higher costs associated with allocations over objections. Allocation over objectives places at risk the relationship between Rachel and Alfred. And that can affect future work for everyone.
Allocation by coercion
Facing objections, some allocators turn to coercion when rational or emotional pleading fails. In this instance, the risks of damage to relationships is even greater than is the risk associated with allocation over objections. It's greater because everyone who witnesses Alfred's use of coercion — and everyone who hears about it — must consider the possibility that Alfred might apply coercion to anyone.
Moreover, once Alfred employs coercion in any situation, everyone is aware that he might use it again. People become reluctant to register objections to receiving action items. They might even become reluctant to withhold permission when Alfred "offers" them action items. The result is that people are more likely to accept action items that they have little capacity — or capability — to discharge effectively.
Allocation off line
To limit public exposure of Alfred's use of manipulative or coercive tactics, he elects to conduct action item allocation "negotiations" off line, one-on-one. This strategy can work in the sense that it does limit the risk of damage to the relationship between Alfred and Robert. But another risk arises.
When Alfred allocates action items privately, errors such as duplication, dependency, ambiguity and schedule conflict are less likely to be detected because the negotiations are conducted out of view of the rest of the group. When the allocation conversation is public, the rest of the group can raise questions if they detect an error in the framing of the action item or in the allocation choice.
Allocation as a motivator
To encourage Robert to accept an allocation voluntarily, without objection, Alfred might offer Robert an incentive. Incentives can be in the form of a promise to relieve Robert of unpleasant assignments, or a promise to assign him to a task he prefers. These sorts of incentives are known as extrinsic motivators. Using them can create an impression of having "bought" the cooperation of the action item recipient. And that can contribute to an unpleasant atmosphere surrounding the transaction.
Extrinsic motivators come with a price. For example, using an extrinsic motivator in one situation increases the likelihood that the receiver of the action item will expect something similar — or even more "motivating" — in a future similar situation. Once the precedent is set, setting it aside could be difficult.

Last words

When the person designated as Responsible for the action item has been manipulated, coerced, or "bought," there is a risk that the action item, once allocated, won't "stay allocated." Although the responsible person might not be passionate about executing the action, they might be passionate about finding a way to get it reallocated to someone else. Go to top Top  Next issue: Recapping Factioned Meetings  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!


Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Smith 2005.2]
Michael L. Smith, James Erwin, and Sandra Diaferio. "Role & responsibility charting (RACI)," Project Management Forum (PMForum) 5, 2005. Available here. Retrieved 8 March 2024. Back

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrendPtoGuFOkTSMQOzxner@ChacEgGqaylUnkmwIkkwoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

This article in its entirety was written by a 
          human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Effective Meetings:

Don't start meetings on the hourMastering Meeting Madness
If you lead an organization, and people are mired in meeting madness, you can end it. Here are a few tips that can free everyone to finally get some work done.
Thumb upDecisions, Decisions: I
Most of us have participated in group decision making. The process can be frustrating and painful, but it can also be thrilling. What processes do groups use to make decisions? How do we choose the right process for the job?
A light bulb, the universal symbol of creativityAsking Brilliant Questions
Your team is fortunate if you have even one teammate who regularly asks the questions that immediately halt discussions and save months of wasted effort. But even if you don't have someone like that, everyone can learn how to generate brilliant questions more often. Here's how.
A computer mouse, the tool we use so often to hijack our own mindsPreventing Meeting Hijacking
Meeting leads, meeting chairs, and facilitators must be prepared to deal with meeting hijackers. Hesitation, or any ineffectual action, enhances the hijacker's chances of success. Here are suggestions for preventing hijacking.
A typical standup meetingMeeting Troubles: Culture
Sometimes meetings are less effective than they might be because of cultural factors that are outside our awareness. Here are some examples.

See also Effective Meetings and Project Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Old books, the standard symbol of knowledgeComing April 17: How to Answer When You Don't Know How to Answer
People engaged in knowledge work must often respond to questions that test the limits of their knowledge, or the limits of everyone's knowledge. Responding effectively to such questions advances us all. Available here and by RSS on April 17.
Three gears in a configuration that's inherently locked upAnd on April 24: Antipatterns for Time-Constrained Communication: 1
Knowing how to recognize just a few patterns that can lead to miscommunication can be helpful in reducing the incidence of problems. Here is Part 1 of a collection of communication antipatterns that arise in technical communication under time pressure. Available here and by RSS on April 24.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrendPtoGuFOkTSMQOzxner@ChacEgGqaylUnkmwIkkwoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at X, or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.