“What’s next?” is a question to ask others and a question to ask yourself when planning a project. Ask it and keep on asking it after every answer. String the next actions together and you have a complete project.
If you cannot identify a next action, the problem is not correctly or completely defined. If you do not know what is next, the next action is to find out where to get more information about the problem.
The first answer is not always the right answer.
You are starting a new project and you tell yourself the first step is to prepare the project charter. This is not the next step because you cannot prepare the charter without knowing what the objective of the project is. The real next step is to schedule a meeting with the sponsor. Ask if you can do the next action or do you need to do something before.
What are you doing?
Is there an action in your next step? Do you know who needs to do what? The next step needs to describe someone doing something specific. “Call the sponsor”; “meet the sponsor”; “the sponsor approves the charter” are clear actions describing who needs to do what. “Initiate the project” does not say what needs to be done for project initiation and it is not clear whether its you or the sponsor who does the initiation.
What is the result?
The magic word here is “to”. What is the action going to produce. You are calling the sponsor to schedule a meeting. You are meeting the sponsor to get the objective of the project. The sponsor approves the charter to initiate the project.
When do you do it?
Make a date for your actions. Give them deadlines. “Call the sponsor on Tuesday”; “Meet with the sponsor before Thursday”; “The sponsor approves the charter by Friday.”
Put it all together.
You now have everything you need to plan your project. You have deliverables; you have a list of discreet tasks; you have the resources needed and you have the dates when the actions need to be done.