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

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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

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