Issue Management in Project Management

What happens when the risks you have identified earlier on during the project planning phase become a reality? In the project management space, this manifested risk is known as an issue and issue management is the process teams can take to help mitigate their impacts. 

In this blog, we will explain the difference between risks and issues and the typical issue management process you can implement in your teams.

What is an issue?

Before jumping into issue management, we first have to clarify what an issue is and is not.

An issue is a project risk that has escalated into a current problem that can negatively impact the successful completion and delivery of the project. Issues can have varying degrees of impact, some in the short term and others can be a future event that will impact overall project success. Though projects face many problems, not all ‘problems’ are categorized as issues as they are characterized by their negative impact to project progress that can only be resolved through the implementation of the project management process or explicit services.

It is important to emphasize that an issue is current and present and should not be mistaken with the following:

  • Potential problems: problems that have not truly manifested are risks and they should be monitored and managed through a risk register.
  • Required decisions: while decisions need to be made to resolve problems that lead to issues, the decisions themselves are not an issue unless it is not made within an appropriate time frame.

What is Issue Management?

Issue management is the process of monitoring, analysing and prioritising issues through set processes and structures to allow for the successful mitigation or resolution of the issue itself. 

Risk management vs Issue Management

Issue management is often considered the next step to risk management. Risk management is inherently a highly pre-emptive process that aims to identify potential various risks before they occur so they can either be resolved before they occur or prepared for in the situation of its occurrence. An issue, by nature, is a current problem and is thus a has a more reactionary approach. 

Why is Issue Management Important?

Issue management is a valuable process that helps maintain project stability, consistency, and efficiency throughout the entire project lifecycle. As mentioned, risk management is pre-emptive, but issue management is current – it requires a highly action-based approach that is highly reactive, flexible and agile to be able to respond appropriately. As the problem is already here, there is a smaller margin for error and time is often of the essence. Through the implementation of robust analysis and response frameworks, proper issue management helps teams promptly react and respond to ongoing problems to minimise their negative impact on the overall project.

Issue management is becoming increasingly important in our increasingly digitised and fast-paced society, particularly in regard to media. Problems in the past that may have had more time to resolve are actively being brought onto the public stage and an organisation’s response is actively monitored and criticised. While not all problems and issues may be media-worthy, it is important to have a robust framework that can respond accordingly when the situation arises to minimise any further impacts on both the project and the organisation itself.

Issue Management Process

Issue management frameworks or processes may vary from organisation to organisation but they typically follow along the lines of these five steps. 

Step One: Identify and document issues

The first step in issue management is to identify the issues at hand. Though many of the ensuing issues may have already been predetermined and monitored as risks through the risk management process, not all issues may stem from pre-identified risks. 

It is important for teams to make an active effort to seek problems that may have gone unnoticed by actively engaging with project stakeholders such as clients, project teams and other sponsors. These problems must then be evaluated as to whether they are considered issues using the definitions above and can then be documented in an Issue Log.

The Project Management Institute recommends applying a formal structure or ‘metalanguage’ to help clearly define the issue and its ensuing impacts on the project. Their proposed format is:

“Given that <issue situation> has occurred, the current status <brief description of status>, affecting <project objectives> as follows <description of impact – quantified if possible; action-oriented if possible>.” 

For example:

“Given that the product technical designer is unable to agree on the specific technical solution (the issue), the current development sprint has been halted (current status), affecting the project timeline, cost and product scope (project objectives) in a way that is threatening the entire project (impact)”

 Step Two: Analyse and prioritise the right issues

Once the issues have been identified, they need to be properly analysed, evaluated and prioritised. An issue matrix valuable tool teams can apply to evaluate the severity of a specific issue. While a risk matrix often considers the probability of occurrence as a critical measure, an issue matrix focuses more on the amount of time needed to resolve an issue before it can negatively impact overall project success.

Issue level matrix

Teams may define the exact time ranges for each associated level, however, the typical definitions for each level are:

–        Immediate: requires a resolution within the next 5 working days or project success will be negatively impacted

–        Urgent: requires a resolution within the next 10 working days or project success will be negatively impacted

–        Important: requires resolutions within the next month or project success will be negatively impacted

–        Timely: requires a resolution within the next month or other activities within the project will be disrupted

–        Convenient: decision can be withheld for more than one month

With the help of this matrix, teams can easily allocate an issue-level rating to each individual issue and properly prioritise the most significant issues that can have the most detrimental impact on overall project success.

Step Three: Create an issue action plan

This is where the bulk of the plan resides. While some of the plans will simply be a handover from risk management plans, it is important to make sure the handover process is clearly defined in the case that they need to manage by other teams’ members. During this step it is important to assign an issue owner who will oversee monitoring and following up on the issue progress, keeping track of actions and providing key stakeholders with relevant status updates.

Teams will need to set a solution date or deadline, determine the different resources and stakeholders that need to be involved to resolve the issue as well as plan out the necessary steps or actions that need to be made. Once the team has agreed upon their resolution, it is important to add the action plan to the general project management plan to maintain transparency and ensure all actions are aligned with other project activities to not lead to further impediments on project progress.

Step Four: Monitor progress and execute the issue action plan

Once the necessary actions have been defined and assigned, the ensuing actions must be tracked through typical project management monitoring processes and issue owners will need to monitor for any additional emerging risks that can further impact project success. Issue owners will be tasked with reporting, managing, and ultimately closing the issue they are responsible for.

Step Five: Review and improve the issue management process

At the end of each issue resolution, it is important to take time to review the actions made and identify any new opportunities where actions or processes could be completed more efficiently and effectively for the team. Teams may choose to produce an issue register that can help log all issues that arise throughout the project and organisation that helps quantify the degree of control the team has over project success. If there are too many issues arising, teams may have an inadequate risk management or project planning framework that must be improved to prevent projects from being held at the whims of continuous issues.

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