ARTICLES • 28-03-2014

Vinh Long, VIETNAM

David Allen has long spread the word on two nuclear units for action management: Projects and Actions. Understanding these concepts allows for great improvements, namely around teamwork and efficient reporting.
Projects and Actions: why are they so important?
There are plenty of theories and books on Project Management and Personal Systems. Each one works just fine for its author, and some special ones get worldwide adoption because of their strength: they seem to contain such atomic key ingredients, they create roots in our mind set.
Projects and Actions are such a case and can be traced back to cognitive science, matching very important notions of motivation and mental resources. So important that, if your system doesn't address them in some way, it may fall short of being a meaningful tool. Lists of words and items are just lists, unless they 'speak' to you in an engaging way that moves you and your team towards action.
Tackling the concepts: Action and Project
An Action is a specific trackable single change in the physical world. A Project refers to a specific desired state of the world or a 'scenario', and usually encapsulates the management of multiple Actions that will incrementally lead to that end state. It's typically defined with a specific action verb like 'write', 'call', 'go', and will have all the specifications required. I like to say it's robot-specific: clear instructions.
A Project can be something like 'Taxes' or 'Marketing Campaign X'. It represents the 'thing', the 'issue', the 'problem', and should be defined in terms of end state. A good way to think about Project definition is by imagining a finishing line of a 100m sprint race. There is a photo-finish laser beam clearly stating "done". That ultra-specific notion of "done" is the essence of Project definition and it's probably the single hardest concept people struggle to specify.
Cognitive Science match
In your brain, decisions and executions make use of different mental resources. An Action is the resulting next evident step of execution when prior decisions have been dealt with. An Action always implies there was a specific choice about what to happen next. In a way, it tests risk assessment, and that's why the question "what's the next action?" can be so powerful in any thinking group. It's like you are asking: "is it time to take a real step forward, or are we still not willing to decide and take risks?".
Projects, in the other hand match imagineering mental resources. Projects will create the visualization of whatever we are after. They embed the Project-ion of the desired scenario. Crucial for any single individual, I can't stress enough how vital this is for teamwork. It is the very source of human motivation. It is the compass that aligns everyone's efforts. It's the finish line that runners chase with all their strength. And if you think about it, it would be hard to imagine a good sprint race if the finish line is unknown, cloudy, dubious or even moving all the time!
This article was published in the 18th edition of Productive Magazine (adapted)
It's funny, but another way of putting it is that a next action is leaving a note to your future self explaining what it is you mean to do.
in 2014-03-31 13:14:22
I find myself asking my four year old this question...for example, "Ok, now we need to brush your teeth. What's the next step?" When she breaks it down to small steps, she can do lots of things all by herself. She just can't always remember what the next step is, and needs a little reminding!
in 2014-03-29 05:13:48
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