Thursday 28 August 2014

Using if-then planning to write better action plans

At the start of the academic year it is one thing to set aims, objectives and goals, yet we all know from experience that school development plans or college action plans often do not lead to action.  Heidi Grant Halvorson (2014) argues that it is not enough just to articulate what needs doing, it also requires clearly laying out what needs to be done, by who and by when.   Halvorson argues 'if-then' planning allows individuals (teachers) and organisations (schools and colleges) to clearly express and carry out their plans.  So how do they work.?

Suppose that you have a particular task to complete, for example, completing a weekly report on some aspect of a department, school or college's activity, an if-then plan involves stating the task in the following format :

If it is Monday at 10.00 am I will email my Line Manager/Head of Department ( A N Other) with the attendance report.

What is important here is the cue - If it is Monday at 10.00 am - is directly linked to the action - emailing the attendance report to the line manager.  In other words, the cue 10.00 am Monday is 'wired' into colleagues' brains to the action - email my Line Manager with the attendance report. Once, this cue is detected the mind then triggers the 'then' part.  

Halvorson states that more than 200 studies have shown that 'if-then' planners are 300% more likely than others in achieving their goals and objectives. Halvorson  goes onto cite the work of Thurmer, Wieber and Gollwitzer  who have shown that 'if-then' planning has helped organisational decision-making through increased information exchange or preventing additional resources being allocated to failing projects.

So if we were to adapt a typical action plan into an 'if-then' plan, what would it look like. The following is an amended example of Halvorson's (2014) 'if-then' organisational planning flow-chart.

Step 1 – Establish school/college goal
Step 2 – Break the goal down into specific concrete sub-goals
Step 3 – Identify detailed actions – the who, when and where – for achieving each sub-goal
Step 4 Create if then plans that trigger the actions
During the autumn term improve the timely completion of annual performance reviews and appraisals
Identify where timely completion of appraisals is not taking place
Gather feedback from problem areas from HODs and teachers
Deputy Principal/Head staffing, at the end of each month

If it is the last Friday of the month the Deputy Head Staffing (I) will send out forms seeking suggestions on how to remove barriers which are getting in the way of the completion of appraisals

Improve opportunities for appraisal meetings between managers and teachers/lecturers
Generate schedule for completion of appraisals
All appraisers, every Friday morning, to be turned in by midday.
If it’s Friday morning, then I (HODS) will create a summary of the progress on appraisals and it to the Deputy Head Staffing by midday

Reduce number and duration of school/ departmental meetings
Establish improve school-wide time discipline
All staff who set the agendas of meetings
When I (all agenda setters) set an agenda I will include in the title of the agenda item its' purpose : Discuss, Decide or Disseminate

So what are the implications for practice as we commence the new academic year.  
  1. It might be worth re-visiting the action plans templates of previous years to consider whether they should be amended.
  2. Many action plans have significant sections on success criteria by which to judge the success or otherwise of the action plans.  Maybe more time needs to be spent on designing action plans which increase the likelihood of meeting those criteria (In other words, what is the point of spending time writing success criteria if the action plan does not contribute towards the delivery of the required actions).
  3. If-then planning is and example of how improvement can be made to the most established of practices by adopting an evidence based approach to what works.

Halvorson, H. G. (2014) Get your team to do what it says it's going to do, Harvard Business Review, May 2014 pp 83 -87
Thürmer, J. L., Wieber, F., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (in press). Planning high performance: Can groups and teams benefit from implementation intentions? In M. D. Mumford & M. Frese (Eds.), The psychology of planning in organizations: Research and applications. New York, NY: Routledge