‘Who will do what with whom by when?’ – having some such arrangement is often taken as a measure of the success of a meeting. Change managers come in for criticism if they do not summarize the results of meetings as action plans. Action plans are a way of showing everyone involved that what went on at the meeting was more than just ‘blather’, that mechanisms are in place to ensure that their serious group discussions will have some effect on the day-to-day business of the company.
One common complaint, however, is that the action plans are often not translated into practice. The tasks are formulated in overly general terms, and people fail to check whether tasks have been completed. Tasks are often completed with the sole purpose of being able to report, at the next meeting, that something has been done.
The problems that arise when pursuing action plans are frequently explained in terms of a lack of a culture of change within the organization, a lack of perseverance among management, and a lack of technical skill in drawing up the plans. All manner of explanations are invoked for the ineffectiveness of to-do lists – what is never questioned, though, is the purpose of these very lists. Even if the practical implementation leaves a lot to be desired, the idea and the approach are taken to be sound. Change managers love these explanations, for they allow the managers to present mistakes in implementation as justifications for their ongoing attempts to perfect these oh-so-important action plans. Such a never-ending project is no doubt financially attractive for consultants and for human resource and training managers, but we still need to ask whether the reality behind action plans has actually been understood.
Decisions are often formed by chaos, not by planning
In the field of organization studies, Michael Cohen, James March, and Johan Olsen (1972) have established that actions in enterprises, administrations, hospitals, schools, and universities are rarely the result of systematic consideration, planning, or agreement. It is much more common that an action is the result of a random coincidence of different problems, of solutions that are somehow in the air, and of the interests of various actors. The purchase of a new piece of machinery is not the endpoint of a long process of careful investment planning but a consequence of the fact that the funds just happened to be around. And the creation of a new post is not the result of the emergence of a new assignment profile but simply a way of removing a longstanding employee from a central position within the enterprise.
The key feature of this school of thought is that it describes the chaos, awkwardness, and complexity of decision-making in organizations as it is, without rushing to compare it against stringent, goal-oriented ideal models. If we adopt this perspective, what can we say about the origin of the enthusiasm for action plans?
The popularity of these lists is connected to the fact that managers focus on actions. A good manager is one who tells others to ‘do it!’ For consultants, project leaders, and change managers, drawing up action plans is a simple way of nourishing the faith of employees in this orientation towards action.
The hidden functionality of action plans
This is not to say that, as a consultant, project manager, or change manager, you must do without action plans. But – and this is the crucial point – you should not be disappointed when many of these lists fail to translate into concrete actions within the organization. It is just like faith in the church. It often has no consequences, but it nevertheless performs important functions within religious life – despite, or possibly even because of, this absence of consequences.
Action plans perform an altogether different function from the one that is officially advertised. By signalling that a discussion about concrete actions is taking place, they allow people to reach an understanding. Without the threat that a discussion will actually have consequences, employees will not feel the need to seriously engage with each other. Only the threat that things ‘might get serious’, symbolized by the action plan, prevents discussions from lapsing into purely academic argument. What is crucial is that the real result of the discussion is the understanding that has been reached, not the action plan, which often finds its well-deserved resting place on one of the organization’s shelves, gathering dust. Action plans often do their job long before they are translated into action.
Michale D. Cohen, James G. March and Johan P. Olsen, ‘A Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice’, in Administrative Science Quarterly 17 (1) (1972), pp. 1–25.