Why are people so bad at providing action items?

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Action items. Meetings! First: a quick anecdote.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. You just sat in a meeting for 1 hour. In all probability, you’re not entirely sure why you were even invited to the meeting. It’s one of those “Eh, I went because it was on my calendar” deals. (We’ve all been there.) So you just waited an hour of your life and you’ll absolutely never get it back. It was mostly a circular discussion that went nowhere, i.e. one of those “Let’s call a meeting to discuss having another meeting” deals. (We’ve all been there.)

As the hour concludes, you nervously glance at whomever “owns” this meeting and you’re chasing action items. What’s the follow-up? Who is supposed to do what? How will we ever know if this meeting truly had any cosmic purpose?

And of course, the person sputters and stutters and ultimately screeches: “Well, I guess I’ll send around some email follow-ups…”

No action items.

1 hour.


Where are my damn action items?!?!

Now you know this meeting “organizer” is going to rush from this meeting to another meeting, then a third meeting, then a conference call — and that promised email follow-up won’t come for two days. By then you’ve been to 11–14 other meetings and have no idea what that original meeting was about. You get assigned some vague, no-priority action items and then someone proposes “hopping on a call” for clarification.

By the time this cycle is done, you’ll have spent about seven hours of your life in meetings. There will be no action items. And chances are you’re all discussing something the C-Suite could care less about.

How does this happen? Why are action items so hard for people? Let’s discuss.

Action items: A couple of quick notes on the uselessness of meetings

I hope, by this point in corporate evolution, we all realize meetings are a total joke most of the time. One company burned 300,000 manpower hours on one weekly meeting, for example. If you were to line up 100 random white-collar office workers and ask them the worst thing about their jobs, I bet you’d get three answers:

  • Meetings
  • Communication
  • “My salary, because I carry this place on my back!”

Alright, here’s the deal. Bullet 1 (“meetings”) should inform Bullet 2 (“communication”), but it almost never does. Why? How did we arrive at 2016 and still waste $37B in unproductive meetings annually?

There’s two major issues, IMHO:

OK, so meetings suck. They waste money. They don’t communicate ideas, even though they should. And they end in these generic circles where no one knows what to do next. But why does that happen? Why are the action items such a wasteland?

The problem with action items

At this point, you gotta find the intersection point of two lines of thinking:

OK. If you hate your job and are just chasing the cheddar so that you can afford your middle-class dream mortgage, well, what’s the advantage of bureaucracy?

Normally bureaucracy would be bad for you. It ups the ante on the possibility of having a totally-awful boss who makes your life a living hell. Then, instead of returning to your middle-class dream home, you probably head straight for the pub. We’ve all had these jobs.

But a-ha! Some dudes who claim to hate bureaucracy secretly love it. And why’s that?

Because in a hierarchy-laden, bureaucratic organization, you don’t really have to do shit all day and you’ll still get paid.

And that’s the problem with action items in a nutshell. In a big place, what’s the penalty for calling a 1-hour meeting and ending it sans action items? There is no penalty. Everyone just races to the next meeting. “That’s how business gets done, baby!”

In reality, it’s not. It’s how meandering bullshit persists. But we tolerate it, and oftentimes we tolerate it because the dirty little secret is … we’re all trying to do less as we claim we do more.

Action items and the little test

If you ever want to have some fun and get arrested, do this:

  • Put on a suit
  • Grab a bunch of papers and folders
  • Walk into a random office in the downtown of where you live
  • Saunter past someone and exclaim “No time Tom, a lot on my plate today!”
  • Generally lurk and linger around periodically talking about how busy you are
  • See how long it takes until you get asked to leave

In some companies, it would be 30 seconds. Good! In many, you could probably stay 3–4 weeks — and they’d likely end up cutting you checks. “This is a bit low for what I do around here,” you tell someone. They have no idea you don’t work there. You may think this is a joke, but honestly — this could easily happen at some companies. It’s a Seinfeld episode, right?

This is the whole action items problem. To many, work is about rushing around pounding your chest and justifying your role in that office. It’s not about actually getting stuff done. “Action items” would imply “getting stuff done.”

This is the same problem as “busy vs. productive.”

How we can get better at action items?

Here’s the approach I’d use, personally:

  • Only call a meeting if it absolutely needs to be called
  • When you call it, attach relevant docs to the invite and explain to everyone (a) what the meeting is and (b) who is invited and why
  • At the meeting, listen to the flow of ideas and discussion
  • Course-correct if necessary
  • Hard-stop the dialogue 10 mins before the meeting end time
  • Recap for 2–3 minutes
  • Propose 3–4 next steps
  • Get agreement on those next steps
  • Assign out the work
  • Toss follow-through due dates on the next steps
  • Break the meeting with 1–2 minutes to spare (“passing time”)

Is this really so hard? And yet, out of the approximately 19,224 meetings I’ve been to in my life, I’d say 14 have ever ended with any action items.

Let me say this as clearly as possible: without action items, there was absolutely no point to the meeting. It’s a tree falls in the forest deal.

One more semi-humorous story on action items

Had a job once where I worked with this total spreadsheet jockey who kept defining himself as “the user experience maven” or some shit. In reality, he went to the gym 3 hours a day, took a 1.5-hour lunch, and mostly sat in meetings the rest of the time. If you Google “unjustified salary,” this dude’s mug is on Page 1 of SERP.

The punchline with this dude was this. Every time he ran a meeting, his deck always had quotes from the following:

  • Steve Jobs
  • Jeff Bezos
  • Henry Ford

Like clockwork. Guaranteed. People used to design games around it.

Now, what do you think his decks and meetings never had?

Action items.

So you could count on the six Jobs quotes, but you always knew you were exiting that meeting with nary an idea of what was supposed to happen next.

“If I asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” The quote appears from Henry Ford! Don’t listen to customers! Be innovative! No one asked for Uber!

Well listen, if you asked your meeting attendees what they wanted, they would have said some action items.

Anything else on action items?

My name is Ted Bauer. Want to be friends?

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