Creating an Action Plan

This article originally appeared on Microlearning, our bite-sized online solution for leaders and individual contributors.

There’s a big difference between idly wishing that you could go to Paris and putting together a plan to save enough money, get time off from work and craft an itinerary. Goals are the same way. Identifying them is just the first step. Use the tips below to figure out how you’re going to actually reach them.

We also provide an example showing how someone’s goal can be broken down into an action plan. Keep in mind that our proposed approach is most effective for tackling larger goals (i.e., those that will take at least a month to fulfill) versus daily or weekly goals, and that it is just one among many potential approaches you could take.


1. Start SMART.

Before you create an action plan, it’s critical that the goal you’ve selected is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. For more on setting SMART goals, see our article Selecting and Shaping Key Goals. Keep in mind that sometimes setting goals is an iterative process; you might have to take your best guess at a deadline or outcome, for example, and then revise the goal as you learn more.

  • Let’s take the example of Eliza Michaels, who manages a small team of customer service representatives. Eliza’s team is doing well, and her manager has asked her to draft a training manual that the entire company can use to get new reps up to speed. Eliza agrees that this will save valuable time spent training people individually, and will help ensure that best practices are captured and integrated throughout their rapidly growing company. She isn’t sure exactly how long it will take to put the manual together, or how long it should be, since she hasn’t done one before. She asks a manager in HR who often works on training manuals for some guidance.
  • On July 1, based on what she learns from the HR manager, as well as her current workload, Eliza crafts the following SMART goal: Complete the final draft of a 50-page customer service training manual, approved by both the director of HR and the vice president of customer success, by December 31.


2. Determine how you will measure results.

Sometimes it’s obvious how to measure progress and results stemming from work toward goals, such as when you are striving to meet certain sales targets. Other times, it’s less obvious, such as when you are striving to change a behavior or complete a project with more subjective criteria for judging success. Regardless, you need to set the bar at the outset. How else will you know that your hard work is making a difference?

  • Eliza’s success is riding on the HR director and department VP’s approval of her manual. But she also sees the potential to track her manual’s impact once the company starts using it. She starts measuring the amount of time it usually takes to train customer service reps, and asks other team leads how long it takes them, coming up with an average for the company. She plans to compare this to the time spent after the manual is in use. Plus, she can’t wait to see if there is any improvement in customer satisfaction surveys after distributing the manual, since she hopes that it will help ensure strong service across the board.


3. Get buy-in from your manager and any other key players.

You don’t want to embark on a goal, only to discover that your boss or someone else critical to your success doesn’t think it’s important. Take your SMART goal to your next 1-on-1 with your manager, and approach anyone else you might need to collaborate with to gather their feedback.

  • The idea for Eliza’s manual came from her manager, so she feels confident presenting it in her next 1-on-1. Eliza sets expectations about the timing, however, by noting that she hasn’t written a manual before and may need to adjust the deadline if something goes wrong. Her boss agrees that this sounds reasonable and says she’s excited about the project.
  • Eliza notifies her team of service reps about the project, mentioning that she’ll be seeking the reps’ input throughout the process. She also tells them that ideas for the manual are welcome.


4. Break your goal into milestones.

One of the main reasons why so many people don’t follow through on big goals is, well, they’re big. Contemplating a double-digit sales increase, or the adoption of a more positive attitude, or the completion of a monster report can be overwhelming. Don’t despair. Every sizeable goal can be broken down into milestones. Think of these as checkpoints along the way to help you stay on course. The number of milestones will depend on the goal you’ve chosen, but a range of three to five milestones is common for achieving multi-month goals.  

  • Eliza breaks her six-month SMART goal — Complete the final draft of a 50-page customer service training manual, approved by both the director of HR and the vice president of customer success, by December 31 — into the following milestones: 1.) Complete research; 2.) Complete a detailed outline; 3.) Complete the first draft and send it out for review; 4.) Complete a revision and send it out for final approval; and 5.) Complete the final, approved draft.

Some people also assign deadlines to each milestone at this juncture (see Step 4), but you may find it helpful to complete Step 3 first, especially if your goal requires that you try new things you’re unfamiliar with.


5. List the activities required to meet each milestone.

Next, continue the process of breaking your goal down by listing the specific activities involved — what you actually need to do to reach each milestone.

  • Eliza breaks her first milestone, “Complete research,” into the following activities: 1.) Meet with the HR director and VP of customer success to discuss and define the manual’s scope, as well as their expectations; 2.) Interview and observe phone reps on my team, as well as the four other customer service teams across the country, for input on best practices and customer success stories to include in the manual; 3.) Find and review at least five other customer service training manuals used by other companies for comparative purposes — preferably ones recommended by the VP of customer success and/or director of HR; and 4.) Conduct online research on customer success.
  • Eliza goes through her remaining milestones, similarly breaking down the tasks involved with each. She now has a step-by-step list of activities required to reach her original SMART goal.


6. Assign deadlines to each milestone, schedule meetings and set reminders.

It’s time to pull up your calendar, estimate how long it will take to reach each milestone and set a deadline for each. It’s usually best to overestimate the amount of time that will be required, especially if you’re working toward a goal that you haven’t targeted before. Unexpected detours and roadblocks are bound to come up, so build in a buffer for yourself.

If you’ll be relying on others to get you over the finish line, think about when you’ll need them to get involved and whether you might need to schedule any meetings. Some people also like to build reminders into their calendars to prompt future actions.

  • After reviewing the list of activities associated with each milestone she’s identified to complete her customer service training manual, Eliza sets the following deadlines for each one: 1.) Complete research by August 15; 2.) Complete a detailed outline by August 31; 3.) Complete the first draft and send it out for review by November 1; 4.) Complete a revision and send it out for final approval by December 1; and 5.) Complete the final, approved draft by December 31.
  • Next, Eliza sends out meeting requests to each of her customer service reps, as well as those on the other four service teams, staggering them across the month of July. Then, she schedules meetings with the director of HR and VP of customer success for the third week in July, guessing that she will be less likely to waste their time on more obvious questions (and prepared to impress!) after arming herself with the information gathered during the first three weeks of her customer service rep interviews.
  • Finally, since she suspects that completing the first draft of the manual will be the toughest milestone to reach, Eliza sets a weekly “quota” of 5.5 pages for each week between September 1 and November 1 (50 pages divided by eight weeks). She puts these quotas in her calendar as reminders.


7. Anticipate obstacles.

Don’t assume it will be smooth sailing once you have a plan. What about that project manager in the finance department who takes forever to review budgets, or the big annual conference your company always participates in that is bound to suck time and resources away from your plan? You won’t be able to anticipate every obstacle, but you should put some thought into where you’re likely to encounter resistance, and what you can do about it.

  • Eliza foresees a few obstacles. First, she knows that scheduling time with the reps on different teams, who are also in different time zones, will be tough. She touches base with their team leads and asks that they help by reinforcing the importance of Eliza’s project in team meetings. She also sends meeting requests for those interviews early in the month of August, figuring that will give her ample time to reschedule if any fall through the cracks.
  • A second obstacle Eliza anticipates is the perfectionism of the VP of customer success. Eliza decides to spend time with the VP up front to ensure that she understands her expectations, and plans to ask the VP for sample manuals that Eliza can model. She also reaches out to a friend who is an excellent proofreader and asks if she’d be willing to take a look at the draft in late November before Eliza sends it out for review.
  • A third potential obstacle is Eliza’s distaste for writing. Producing a rough draft will challenge her. In addition to setting a weekly page quota for the months of September and October, she decides to build in a little extra incentive for herself: dinner out at a fancy restaurant with her boyfriend if she meets the deadline.


8. Put your plan in writing.

Your plan doesn’t have to be set in stone; actually, it’s best to think of it as a work-in-progress. But capturing it in writing will make it more real for you, providing a reference tool that you can not only refer to throughout the process of meeting your goal, but also in the future should you target any similar goals.

  • Eliza creates a document with her SMART goal at the top, followed by each milestone and the list of activities it will entail. She plans to refer back to this document at least once a week, make any adjustments in the event that she gets off track or needs to reassess the time involved, and fill in notes documenting her progress.