How to Move from Action Planning to Action Taking
We’ve all heard the popular saying, “actions speak louder than words.” And nothing could be more accurate when it comes to increasing employee engagement, developing your organization’s people, and improving their impact on your business. Today’s organizations need to be able to sense, respond to, and adapt quickly to internal and external changes to remain successful and continue growing. And to make effective, nimble changes, organizations need fast and focused insights from their employees.
In my last post, I outlined the main reasons organizations struggle with taking action on feedback:
- Ownership is often unclear
- Support and enablement for managers is often inadequate
- Feedback can feel hard to act on
I also outlined the importance of a holistic approach to developing more agile action-taking practices, one that includes intuitive and intelligent technology, a simple process aligned to an agile strategy, and clear roles and expectations for your people.
In this post, I’ll identify the key elements of a repeatable, scalable action-taking process.
1. Collect feedback more frequently
Once a year surveys hamstring many organizations. When organizations only periodically gather feedback via a lengthy survey, taking action on it tends to get drawn out. This often leads to a lack of momentum for the engagement initiative and leaves employees wondering if the organization is doing anything with their feedback. What’s more, when feedback is collected just once a year, the data is often rendered irrelevant due to shifting priorities, which makes acting on it feel equally irrelevant and unnecessary. Additionally, long once-a-year surveys inundate organizations and their managers with information, making it challenging to identify where to focus for impact.
More organizations are finding that regular check-ins with employees using short pulse surveys with fewer questions drive faster decision making and action taking. Timely, relevant data informs important business decisions and priorities alongside other essential operational data. More frequent data also allows managers to practice addressing feedback and build good people management habits through repetition. If your managers only get feedback once per year, they have to learn basic interpretation and conversation skills all over again every 12 or so months. We often hear about managers who are great technical experts but are not as competent people managers; like anything else, the more opportunities they have to practice, the stronger that muscle will become.
2. Release results to your managers right away
More frequent pulsing requires more frequent action. Organizations that want to maintain participation and engagement don’t have to wait weeks and months before they get to work acknowledging and addressing feedback. That means getting the data out as soon as possible and into the hands of managers and teams so they can start working on it. Often organizations reserve time for HR and leadership to access the survey results, and synthesize and prepare responses ahead of distributing them more broadly. While waiting for HR & leadership to review the data first a common practice, it has two unintended consequences: first, it signals to managers that survey data is not their responsibility to own and act on, but instead HR or leadership’s, and second, it lengthens the time to action.
Instead of cascading results down through the organization, get the data into the hands of managers and teams as fast as possible so they can initiate action-taking conversations and activities.
3. Shift the focus from Action Planning to Action Taking
A majority of action-taking processes over-index on planning—instead of executing.
When 80% of action-taking effort focuses on developing plans, the process feels cumbersome, making it easier to de-prioritize when other needs arise. Unfortunately, most action plans are built in a silo via a cumbersome, lengthy process that inhibits timely action-taking. Unless people are enabled to quickly respond and develop good habits of sustainable action-taking, their plans are likely run out of steam.
Focus your team’s energy on short-term, achievable actions. Here’s an example that illustrates why this is so important:
Joe, a manager in your organization, is excited after seeing the latest engagement survey results. He spends hours analyzing the results and comes up with a list of 5-6 things he can do to improve engagement on his team. In the next team meeting, he tells his team about the 5-6 things they are going to tackle. He organizes small teams to focus on the different actions and asks each of them to put together a project plan with milestones, deliverables, etc.
Fast-forward six months. While well-intentioned, Joe and his team have not accomplished the 10 things. They will be lucky if 2 or 3 have crossed the finish line. He finds that not much progress has been made on any of these items. Even the actions that were taken didn’t get done well because the team’s attention and effort were spread thin across 5-6 different things from the start.
As time passes, the team meets less and less frequently about the action items because everyone has gotten busier and interest—and commitment—wanes.
If we can learn one lesson from this example, it’s this: you are much more likely to sustain momentum if you and your team identify and focus on one or two critical actions, or as we like to call it, shifts. Even small changes, especially rapid ones, have a meaningful impact. By focusing, you’re already ahead—taking more action than if you started with a long list of 10 things to accomplish all at once.
4. Check in frequently and adjust as necessary
In an agile process, it’s also important to make time to check in on progress and course correct as needed. The beauty of an agile approach is that if you don’t get everything right from the outset, you still have opportunities to check-in, learn and adjust. We can best facilitate an agile approach by focusing on regular conversations about feedback. Why conversations? Because frequent check-in conversations help teams collaborate and hold each other accountable while learning and growing together.
The simplest way to practice talking about taking action is to incorporate it into a check-in conversation or meeting that is already happening. That may mean dedicating 15 minutes (or less) to check-in during a monthly team meeting, or 10 minutes on the agenda for a weekly standup. The key is not to save talking about action for post-survey, but instead, have an ongoing conversation focused on team participation—identifying what is and isn’t working and course correcting. Here’s what an agile approach to frequent conversations looks like in action:
Your manager Susan schedules 30 minutes on her calendar to review the results of the recently closed engagement survey. After looking through them, she identifies 2-3 key themes to focus on. She shares the themes with her team in their next meeting and asks for their feedback and help identifying one area where they can collectively focus on taking action over the next few weeks. Once they reach consensus, everyone recognizes and commits to one thing they will do differently related to the chosen area.
Over the next few weeks, Susan consistently spends the last 10 minutes of her team meeting checking on the progress and challenges around these commitments. She encourages discussion about what’s working and not working. In some cases, nothing new has happened, but the meeting served as a reminder for everyone to refocus.
By regularly checking in and removing barriers when needed, Susan’s demonstrating her commitment and helping her team take action in an agile way.
Build an agile process to get your organization to take action
In this post, you’ve learned how to adopt an agile action-taking strategy and process and its impact on employee engagement.
If you are ready to get started, ask yourself the following questions:
- How can my organization establish a more frequent feedback cadence, one that’s embedded in how we prioritize and how we make decisions as a business?
- How can my organization improve the speed to action, and get survey results into the hands of managers and teams so they can start taking action quickly?
- How can my organization get teams focused on the essential few things that will move the needle on outcomes in a sustainable way?
- What could an ongoing check-in process look like, so commitment and progress are renewed on an ongoing basis?
In upcoming posts, we will take a deeper dive into the importance of ongoing conversations, and examine the third essential element of an effective engagement program—people (you can find the post on technology here, and you’ve just read the post on process). With each element in place, you and your organization can fundamentally shift how you use people data and feedback to fuel business decisions and organizational success.