The importance of action planning
When a project is relatively small and short-term, for example designing, producing, printing and distributing a leaflet, it may not be necessary or beneficial to develop an action plan. This is particularly the case where there are few people to be involved and what has to be done, and the steps to achieve it are clear. Tasks that are repeated often generally do not need an action plan. For medium-sized projects, such as organising a conference, an action plan can be very beneficial. For larger projects or programmes, such as opening a new health centre, an action plan is essential.
Action planning has a number of specific advantages over and above a list of things to do, or scheduling work using a calendar or diary:
- It provides an opportunity for reflection. Before beginning something, it is helpful to think about what has happened before, what actions have brought about success or partial success and what actions have not helped.
- It brings people together. Action planning can bring together individuals who are knowledgeable in the area of work (experts), individuals who are experiencing the problem and stand to benefit from the change (beneficiaries), and individuals who can contribute to the project (resources). In many cases, a person can have more than one of these roles.
- It clarifies the objective. It is often assumed that if a group of people come together to create an action plan, they will have the same objective, but that is usually not the case. A conference on forced child marriage, for example, may include people who are interested in influencing adults, people who are interested in empowering women and girls, people who want to work with young men, and people who want to create legal change. The emphasis of a project will change depending on the objective, and action planning provides the opportunity to clarify exactly what change is required.
- It builds consensus. Just as consensus on the objective can be achieved, consensus on priorities can also be achieved through the action planning process. Everyone involved can contribute their ideas, and gradually, through discussion, negotiation and compromise, the most important actions will emerge.
- It creates ownership and accountability. When people are involved in developing an action plan, they are more likely to contribute realistic suggestions that are often things they have some influence over. The involvement process creates a sense of individual and collective ownership for the action plan. This ownership allows for tasks to be allocated to different people, creating accountability. Individuals who are assigned tasks know they are responsible for these and that they will need to report progress at agreed intervals.
- It clarifies timescales. Setting out all the tasks that need to be done to achieve a particular objective and making decisions about how much resource is available for each task, allows for a realistic assessment of how long the overall action plan will take. Every action in an action plan should have a clear completion date.
- It identifies measures of success. Measures of success are like stepping stones towards a larger objective. They provide a way of measuring progress towards that goal. For example, if an objective is to prevent early pregnancy, there may be many steps towards that goal, including providing contraception, educating children and tackling child abuse. Each of these steps can be measured to ensure it achieves its aim and contributes to the larger objective of preventing early pregnancy.