Create Powerful Action Plans using Critical Conversation Skills

Thanks to your prep work, you aced the critical conversation. Now it's time to create an action plan based on the critical conversation's discussion, so that all the agreements, ideas, and feedback presented aren’t lost in a post-conversation black hole. Action plans provide goals and time lines that help all parties to be productive immediately and set a positive foundation for future feedback and conversations.

While the action plans may be most applicable in performance discussions, sometimes the action coming out of a conversation is not about performance. For example, if the critical conversation happens between peers who avoid conflict and just talk behind each other’s backs, the action plan may simply be an agreement to continue to talk directly with one another when there is a concern or disagreement.

Agree on next steps

At the end of the critical conversation, you’re ready to agree on clear goals and expectations for the action plan. These goals help all parties involved agree on what success looks like by giving you a clear, measurable way to evaluate, track, and reflect on progress.

Gaining agreement is often as simple as asking, “Do I have your agreement that the next step should be to talk with one another immediately if we disagree on what is happening on the project?” By checking for agreement, you continue to build buy-in for how the situation or behaviors will change after the conversation is done.

Determine action plan goals

After a critical conversation — whether you’re delivering performance feedback, dealing with difficult behaviors, or even hiring a new employee — having clear goals and action steps will help all parties involved walk out of the room knowing what needs to happen next.

An action plan divides work into achievable steps in the short term, and should be aligned with longer-term goals. In the example a critical conversation has taken place between a manager, Anna, and her boss, Kathy, who are focusing on improving team engagement Anna (the recipient of the feedback) has three main goals to work on, each with action steps that can be achieved in the next 30 days.

A 30-day Action Plan for Anna
What will happen next? Goals and action plans Actions Who will make it happen and who can help?
Goal #1: Improve collaboration on the team by September 1 Action step: Set up monthly one-on-one follow-up meetings with staff. Each staff member will have an individual meeting with Anna.
Action step: Launch one-hour weekly discussion meetings with team.
Anna to schedule and lead meetings.
Kathy can help facilitate first sessions.
Goal #2: Measure progress of initiatives by September 15 Action step: Create a scorecard measuring productivity.
Action step: Review scorecard with manager and team.
Action step: Anna and Kathy meet monthly to review progress.
Anna to create scorecard. Irene in the technical department can help with formatting and data feeds.
Kathy will set up one-on-one follow-up meetings with Anna.
Goal #3: Increase employee engagement in the department by September 30 Action step: Identify and meet with potential mentors within the company.
Action step: Work with human resources to deploy employee engagement survey or 360-degree feedback.
Action step: Anna and Kathy review feedback about employee engagement and create a 6-month plan of action.
Anna to reach out to mentors.
Anna to meet with Jacob in HR.
Anna to set up review meeting with Kathy after feedback is gathered.

Try to incorporate SMART goals in the action plan: Goals that are specific, measurable, action-oriented and agreed-on, relevant, and time-bound.

Drafting the action plan on a piece of paper while you’re closing the conversation puts everything in black and white. After the conversation, ask the recipient to summarize the action plan and send it back to you — there is tremendous value in gaining ownership and clarifying the action plan if you do.

To improve your chances of success, try to create immediately achievable “wins.” Delivering a critical message and then waiting a year before seeing results is never ideal. Even if your conversation focuses on creating long-term changes on big issues, you can take steps toward achieving the goal in the next one to two weeks.

A critical conversation doesn’t end when the talking stops; the conversation ends successfully when behaviors, patterns, or situations change; an action plan helps to make these changes happen.

Determine who will do each action item

Just as conversations aren’t one-sided, neither is the action plan. Don’t put the entire weight of the world on the shoulders of the other individuals. Instead, make recommendations on who can help make the plan work. In the example, while Anna (the receiver of the feedback) is responsible for getting the work done, each action step has at least one more individual who can help in the process.

Helpers may include a mentor, an expert in a particular field, or even you. Providing a network of support helps the situation move forward in a positive way. If a conversation is between peers, one agreement may be to agree on who can help if the problem does not seem to get better after the conversation is over.

Before you initiate the conversation, think about who will be able to help make the action plan work.

Figure out when things will get done

At the end of the conversation (whether it goes well or not), ideally everyone can agree on what’s going to happen next and when these things will happen.

If you’re asking an employee to change behaviors that are negatively impacting the team, you’ll probably want to see some type of change in the next few days to know he heard the message. If he doesn’t show that he’s working toward change, you may have to deliver the message again.

In the example action plan, the goals have finite dates when the actions should be completed. The action plan also includes a step to review the plan and create next steps for what happens after the first 30 days.

A finite time line is the simplest way to judge whether or not the situation is going to change. For each step in the action plan, include a target date when the action will be complete.

Staggering the time line for actions is a great idea. Put two to three items on the action plan that are due in one to two weeks, and then another two to three items that are due in three to four weeks. Depending on the conversation, a few more action items may be due two to three months after the conversation takes place.

Although you may need to alter the time lines for each situation, by balancing short-term action with long-term goals, all the parties will feel confident that they can see progress and know that the messages were heard clearly.

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