How Next Action Thinking Can Help You Be A Better Leader

There’s a concept in David Allen’s Getting Things Done called the next action. David says:

The “next action” is the next physical, visible activity that needs to be engaged in, in order to move the current reality of this thing toward completion.”

Next action thinking is the cornerstone of David’s natural project planning model, which has the following 5 steps:

  1. Purpose — Identify why the project needs to happen.
  2. Vision — What does success look like?
  3. Brainstorming — Generate ideas to move the project towards completion.
  4. Structure — As needed (especially for larger projects or projects involving teams), organize the brainstormed items into lists or categories to help you better understand the steps.
  5. Identify Next Action(s) — What can be done now to move the project forward?

For most of my smaller, personal projects I focus primarily on #2 and #5. If I’m contemplating starting a new project, I probably have already moved past the “why” of the project. I like to begin with the end in mind and write down what success looks like, then immediately jump into next action thinking. This works when the scope is small. It also might remind you of agile project planning approaches like Scrum, which focus on small increments of progress and avoid building big master project plans.

When I stall out on a project (read: procrastinate), or feel resistance of any kind, I usually need to return to this natural planning model and refocus on actionable next steps. It might help to look at an example: writing this very article.

I have a project in Omnifocus called “Tech Leadership Content” which is where I keep reminders about articles to write. I want to publish once or twice each month and I have other reminders that pop up to help me track to this goal. This month I decided to focus on this article, and the reminder had a headline that read: “Write post: The Value of a Next-Action Decision-Making Standard”.

Here’s an important question: is the item “Write post: The Value of a Next-Action Decision-Making Standard” a next action, or a project? The answer is complicated and very contextual. For me, an item like this is usually enough for me to act on. I say usually because I regularly sit down and write an article from start to finish in one session, without much resistance.

For this particular article, however, I encountered resistance for a few reasons:

  • I want to tie this concept to leadership and management and was missing a hook
  • I needed to do more research on the topic, looking at the source material (David’s book) as well as some other online resources. This TedX talk is a good example.

The resistance I was facing in writing this article was my clue that I needed to revisit the natural planning model, do some brainstorming, and find actionable next steps. Next actions for creative endeavors like this often look like:

  • Research items (reading, searching, talking to others)
  • Breaking a bigger endeavor into smaller parts
  • Setting aside time to write a shitty first draft.

So far I’ve focused on personal, smaller projects. So how does next action thinking help you become a better leader?

On projects you are committed to (work, volunteer, or personal) you will find times when things slow down or even stall. There might be misalignment or confusion about purpose. Maybe folks don’t share the same vision. Revisiting items 1 and 2 above are logical steps to take. Keep this in your bag of tricks.

The situation I want to focus on is the meetings you attend where there’s a lack of clarity on what commitments are being made, and what the next actions are for the group. A great example is a meeting that happens in response to some incident or crisis. Resolving the crisis is now an organizational project, and if you are involved in the meeting you are probably a player in bringing the project to a close.

Do you want to be a leader? If so, fine tune your diagnostic skills when joining meetings like this to determine if there’s clarity about the current situation, and if the next steps are clear. Some questions you should be willing to ask include:

  • What do we need to get done between now and our next meeting? This is a mini version of item #2 above, identifying what success looks like.
  • What are the next actions, and who is responsible for them?

David Allen talks about the potential benefits of next action thinking in the organization:

I have had several sophisticated senior executives tell me that installing “What’s the next action?” as an operational standard in their organization was transformative in terms of measurable performance output. It changed their culture permanently and significantly for the better. Why? Because the question forces clarity, accountability, productivity, and empowerment.”

You don’t need to be in a formal management or leadership role to advocate next action thinking in your organization. All it takes is the courage to ask the question “what’s the next action?”