Action planning --
"Event track": a group planning process 1
This is a resource file which supports the regular public program "areol" (action research and evaluation on line) offered twice a year beginning in mid-February and mid-July. For details email Bob Dick firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
... in which an easy-to-use group action planning process is described in step by step detail
The development of action plans is an important part of any goal setting or problem solving. Yet, surprisingly, it is often neglected. Action plans are the means by which the future is planned, and thereby controlled and changed. Action planning converts a goal or a solution into a step by step statement of who is to do what by when.
I have called the technique described here "event track". It uses effective small-group processes for information collection and analysis.
In using it, you decide a goal. You then develop an initial sequence of actions to achieve it. This gives you a rough action plan. You then refine the initial plan. First, you identify where it might go wrong. Then you decide how you would know it has gone wrong and what you might do about it.
This approach gives you a double action plan. Your purpose is to get from where you are to where you want to be. Part of the action plan describes in detail how you are going to do that. The other part describes in detail how you are going to check that it's working.
But first there are some other issues to be addressed. [ index ]
Preparation for action planning
Action planning is likely to be most effective when you also carry out some preparatory activities:
- Select participants from the relevant stakeholders. Negotiate your role and theirs. Obtain their agreement to the process, modifying it if necessary.
- Goal setting or visioning. The participants decide the goals which the planning is to achieve. You might use processes such as "search" for this purpose. There are also other goal-setting processes.
- Situation analysis. Define the main features of the existing situation. For a large system, this might take the form of some type of evaluation. In a small group setting, there are processes such as force field analysis which are effective.
The simplest approach is sometimes called a "problem census". Participants list the main obstacles to goal achievement.
It may be important as part of this process to define the constraints on resource use.
- The action planning.
Steps (b) and (c) can be reversed. The order I've given is most common; but if there are salient problems which occupy most of people's attention, situation analysis can usefully precede goal setting.
Now to the description. First, an overview. Then, a more detailed account. [ index ]
An overview of event track
The overall procedure as described here has seven main phases. After describing the solution (from a previous stage of problem solving) as a mutually-desired goal...
- Generate a list of actions which might occur on the event track from now to the attainment of that goal.
- Identify any other events which would have to occur to bring about any of the key events.
- Add them to the event track.
Then, for each key event in turn...
- Identify any other events which have to occur.
- Identify the assumptions made in compiling the event track. Build into the plan the necessary checks on the assumptions (including assumptions about coordination between parts of the plan).
- Identify problems most likely to lead to failure of the action plan. Develop preventive or contingency plans, and plans for monitoring progress. Add these to the event track.
- Include occasional reviews to check that the goal is still appropriate.
I've described this as if you are doing the planning. And indeed, perhaps you are. More likely, though, you are facilitating the process. The stakeholders are doing the planning. [ index ]
A detailed description
Here is the event track described in detail. If you are interested only in an overview, you can read the main steps and skip the sub-steps.
A. Develop a rough action plan
(This description assumes that you have already defined the goal in a previous activity.)
The first phase has three steps: list possible actions, choose key events, and arrange them in sequence.
1. List possible actions
An action plan is a sequence of actions: generate a list of possible actions, choose the key actions, and then arrange them in sequence.
1.01 Working individually and without discussion, participants list activities that might be used to achieve the goal.
1.02 Collect a combined list of the activities on newsprint. Ask participants to include any other ideas that occur to them while the list is being prepared.
2. Choose key actions
Use a voting technique, cyclic if necessary: choose the actions which must occur if the goal is to be achieved. 2
3. Arrange them in sequence3.01 On a separate piece of newsprint fixed horizontally (to give you plenty of width), draw a line to represent the event track. Label the start now and the end with the goal.now -------------------------------------------> goal
3.02 Write in on this event track the key events, in the order in which they would have to occur to be effective.
The easiest way to do this is to start with the most important key event, and locate it on the event track. Then take the next most important key event and locate it relative to the first key event. And so on ...
Check that all events are recorded as actions by someone present.
It is quite usual for an event to occur twice, or occasionally more often. It typically occurs once when it is planned or verified, and a second time when it is carried out.
B. Refine the action plan
In this phase, the rough action plan from phase 1 is amplified and made more robust. Other events which must occur are first identified. Potential problems are then identified and dealt with. Each event is recorded in the form: "who will do what by when"; the "who" is a member of the team.
These steps are applied to each event in turn ...
4. Identify other key events
For each key event in turn, identify other events which have to happen (in effect, this applies a miniature event track to each key event).4.01 Participants work individually to identify other actions which have to occur if the key event is to be brought about.
4.02 Collect these events on a piece of newsprint.
4.03 Check these events in turn. If they are necessary, transfer them to the appropriate place on the event track.
5. Check assumptions
Identify the assumptions made in compiling the event track. Add to the action plan the necessary checks on those assumptions. The assumptions it is most important to check are those characterised by uncertainty and risk.
For each event in turn ...5.01 Identify the assumptions that have been made about the attitudes and approval and cooperation of other people. Add a check on important assumptions into the event track.
5.02 Consider the assumptions made about resources (materials, time, money, and especially skills). Add necessary checks.
5.03 Consider the assumptions made about coordination. If one event depends on another, add the necessary actions for coordination. This step begins to build in the monitoring of the plan.
6. Plan for potential problems
Identify the most likely problems. Develop preventive or contingency plans, and plans for monitoring progress. 3 If the event track becomes crowded create a partial event track for each key event.6.01 Ask participants, working individually, to think of everything that could go wrong with the key event: "If we carry out this action as planned, what can possibly go wrong?"
6.02 Compile participants' individual lists of potential problems into a combined list.
6.03 Rate probability and severity of each potential problem (a rating of low, medium or high is usually enough). If a potential problem is of moderate or high severity, and moderate or high probability, continue onto the next step. Otherwise return to step 6.01 for the next key event.
6.04 Identify the most likely causes of the potential problem. Devise a series of actions to remove the cause. Add them to the event track.
6.05 Develop a contingency plan in case the problem still occurs. Add these actions to the event track.
6.06 Decide what monitoring has to be done so that the potential problem will be identified if it occurs. Add the measures for monitoring to the event track. This may also required adding preparatory measures, to act as a baseline (for example, counting something may not mean much unless you know how many there were at the start). Note that this step, too, adds monitoring to your action plan.
7. Add regular goal reviews
Take into account the length of time over which the action plan has to operate, and the rate of change. Then decide how often the overall goal should be reviewed for suitability. This step, too, adds monitoring to the event track. [ index ]
The event track is a clear example of the problem-solving process. It alternates between information-generation and -analysis, as many such processes do. The nature of the information and the criteria for evaluation differ, depending on the phase that is active.
The completed event track has a number of features which satisfy the requirements of effective action plans:
- The actions (including those for assumption checks, monitoring, and the like) are all stated specifically. They identify who, what, and by when. (Note that the plan seldom needs to specify how the action is to be done, provided it sufficiently describes the end state to be attained. If the action is accomplished, it does not usually matter what specific method a person uses.)
- As mentioned previously, there are really two event tracks. One is the primary sequence of events which (if all goes well) will achieve the goal. The other is a set of actions for ongoing evaluation. It includes checks on the accuracy of assumptions, the provision of resources, and the like. It also contains the actions necessary to monitor the action plan and implement contingency actions if warranted.
- The first event track, of primary events, provides specificity. The required actions are described in enough detail for everyone to know what she is to do and when she is to do it. The rigidity of this approach is balanced by the second event track, which allows flexibility in the light of developments.
- The person specified by the final form of the event track is a person who is present and able to speak for herself. In this way, the event track and its timing are decided by those who will have to carry out the actions.
The event track also illustrates a general principle which can be applied at other parts of the problem solving cycle. Starting with a rough plan and then reviewing its shortcomings can often lead to a thorough and detailed plan. [ index ]
The first half of the event track is a quick and simple way of identifying most of the key events in an action plan, and their sequence. Other techniques such as Kepner-Tregoe Potential problem analysis or PPA 4 assume that a plan is already available. The event track can be used as the front end to such planning devices.
One valuable application is the development of planning networks such as critical path methods. These differ from the event track in that they are not limited to a single sequence but allow multiple parallel sequences. Event track can handle multiple sequences. [ index ]
- This is slightly modified from the description in B. Dick (1991) Helping groups to be effective. Chapel Hill, Queensland: Interchange. [ back ]
- Cyclic voting is described elsewhere, for instance in Helping groups... (see the previous note), and in the archived file "voting".
Briefly, you can achieve greater consensus on priorities if you give people multiple votes rather than one vote each. If this does not give you high enough agreement, you can repeat the vote. People then transfer their votes from low-rated items to those where their vote will count. [ back ]
- There is a detailed technique available for this step of action planning. It is Kepner-Tregoe Potential Problem Analysis (PPA), on which this part of the event track has been partly based. See Kepner and Tregoe, note 4. [ back ]
- Kepner, C. and Tregoe, B.B. (1981) The new rational manager. Princeton: Princeton Research Press. [ back ]
Copyright (c) Bob Dick, 1995-2000. You are welcome to copy, transmit or distribute this document in electronic or hard-copy form if you clearly acknowledge its source and do not sell it or materials containing it at a profit.
This document may be cited as follows:
Dick, Bob (1999) Event track, a group planning process. Available on-line at http://www.uq.net.au/action_research/arp/etrack.htm,
Maintained by Bob Dick; this version 1.02w last revised 20000102
The URL of this document is http://www.uq.net.au/action_research/arp/etrack.html