Managing the Activities to Resolve Project Issues
In a perfectly ideal project world, the plan for a project would be fully complete and no internal or external factors would cause disruption in successfully executing that plan. Of course, this is never the case - a plethora of forces conspire to disrupt the calm execution of a project plan. This is a normal aspect of projects, and familiar methods (including change control, replanning, and jeopardy management) are available to address the disruption. One method, in particular, is utilized very frequently on most projects to address difficulties in executing the planned project activities and completing the project successfully: Issue Management.
In the projects with which I have been associated, the management and resolution of project issues typically consumes more than a trivial amount of executive, management and team energy; mismanaging the discovery, investigation, action steps and closure of issues can be a significant drain on project personnel and might even impact the project’s ability to complete successfully. (Sometimes a project can appear to complete successfully, but only because project team members devoted a non-trivial amount of their personal time to working issues that could have been more effectively resolved).
Pitfalls in Managing Project Issues
It is easy to bungle the activities associated with project issues. I’ve seen novices and experienced project managers alike fall into some common patterns of failure in managing issues efficiently. The result of their actions has almost always resulted in a string of negatives in the project environment (e.g., disappointed stakeholders, frustrated team members).
Some pitfalls in the management of project issues can divert the attention of a project and, as a result, prevent effective resolution of the most important issues a project may face. Here are some common hazards:
The project is ineffective at recognizing and identifying issues
- Haphazard/Ad Hoc Identification of Issues. Most times, project issues will be identified during status reviews, team meetings and other forums where the project is discussed. If these forums are structured (e.g., a review of project task status with limited discussion), then chances are that issue identification is fairly effective. However, if these reviews are unstructured or, at the other extreme, are too rigidly structured, then the project is left to other ad hoc means for issue identification that will likely be reliant upon team members to be outspoken about their concerns. Haphazard identification of issues improperly allows every alleged problem or action item mentioned in various project forums to be considered a valid project issue.
- Too Quick to Accept an Observation or Concern and Turn it into a Project Issue. With this behavior, every (or most) alleged problem or action item mentioned in various project forums is considered to be a valid project issue that requires effort to investigate and resolve.
- Too Narrow a focus, on the immediate issue. Each issue is considered merely as a specific problem and not as a general category of problems (that need to be addressed) that may occur in slightly different forms within the project
Totally focused only on ‘resolve the issue’
- Using Issue Management to fill gaps in the Project Plan. Using the Project Issues Register to identify work items that should be more properly placed in the project plan and project WBS is a careless implementation of Project Management. This can lead to a situation when many concurrent activities are underway, yet task dependencies and relationships of these multiple work streams are not explicitly linked (except in the mind or private notes of the project manager). The net effect is that difficulties can be introduced in managing the dependencies and value of these parallel activities; a longer term problem is that the project plan is not a true reflection of the activities and effort required by the project and for this reason is of diminished value as a reference for the next project.
- Overlooking a root cause analysis. Focusing on resolution of specific issues without any attention to identifying and understanding the systemic root causes; this is an obstacle to making improvements in the performance of the project team.
Inefficiency in Tracking Progress/Insufficient Focus on the Most Important Issues
- Too Many Issues. The Project Issues Register has grown, almost uncontrollably, to an unmanageably large size. You’ll know you have this situation if you are repeatedly unable to adequately cover the Project Issues Register during your periodic review meetings. The impact of this problem is compounded if issues are not reviewed in order of importance or urgency to the project; if issues are reviewed without regard to priority (e.g., reviewed in the order in which the issue was accepted) then it is likely that some higher priority issues (that have been only recently identified) may not be covered adequately during the review of project issues.
- Unclear Documentation of a Project Issue. Perhaps you’ve been in a team meeting where an existing action item/project issue (which was identified and logged a few weeks ago) is being discussed, and no one in the meeting can remember the definition, need or urgency of that issue resolution – in fact, it may be that no one even understands the issue definition. After a few moments of confusion, the meeting moves on to the next item in the list. In this situation information about a legitimate project issue may have been lost (or, perhaps, the team has wasted time on something that really wasn’t important to the project.
- Lack of Prioritization. Some project issues are significantly impacting and must be addressed; others are without importance and need not be managed. Cluttering a Project Issues Register with trivial or non-consequential work items (which are alleged to be ‘issues’) detracts from a focus the Project Manager and Project Team must have on more important tasks.
Incorrect Assignment of Issue Ownership
- Insufficient Planning/No Estimation of Effort. Some Project Issues require trivial effort to resolve, while others can consume large amounts of work time. With no understanding of the required effort to investigate and resolve a particular issue, the step of identifying a viable issue owner is somewhat hampered (and perhaps thwarted). Overburdening: Some project team member have too much work to complete – the combination of the scheduled project tasks, project issues, and other work is excessive. Assigning issue resolution responsibilities to individuals without regard to their availability potentially introduces risk to the project, and can possibly contribute to a stressful work environment.
- Improper assignment of ownership for an issue. Assigning an individual that is not sufficiently skilled, who is without sufficient authority, or whose job responsibilities are not related to the issue resolution
Extraordinarily Good Issue Management Practices to Implement
In managing project issues, here are some practices that we’ve applied successfully to many projects:
Issue Identification, Validation and Acceptance
- Create Forums for Issue Identification. Ensure there are adequate opportunities to consider the project plan, progress in executing the plan, external influences and other factors so that legitimate project issues can be identified by team members, stakeholders and others.
- Aggressively Manage Issue Priorities. Be diligent in evaluating the importance and urgency of a newly identified project issue. Evaluate the value of devoting project resources to each suggestion, action item, work request, or alleged project issue before assigning it to team member for resolution. Don’t be shy away from asking “What is the impact if we take no action on this item?” if a proposed item looks to be inconsequential. Recognize that not every issue is of the highest importance and priority – some really are less important than others.
- Maintain One Project Issues Register. As a Project Manager, you’ll host/chair many types of project meetings – potentially each might have its own Action Item List. You’ll want to prevent a proliferation of such lists and consolidate actions onto a single Project Issues Register (Beware, some of these ‘action items’ may be more appropriate for inclusion in a revised version of the project plan/project schedule and should not appear in the Project Issues Register). Consolidate actions that arise from various project meetings & activities onto a single Project Issues Register Update your Project Plan. Some ‘action items’ are deficiencies in the project plan and more properly placed in a revised version of the project plan/project schedule
- Be Realistic in Assigning Issue Resolution Responsibilities. Balance the need for issue resolution and the availability/skills/position/political savvy of proposed issues owners
- Focus on the More Important Issues. Maintain the project team’s focus on only those issues that are serious – devote time in review meetings only to these items. Additionally, track progress on those items that are of moderate importance; devote little time or energy to trivial items. In particular, don’t allocate any time in team meetings or project status reviews for reporting or discussion on trivial project issues.
Adequacy of Issue Management
- Recognize When Issue Management is not Enough. If your project is a steady stream of serious project issues and your chances of project success are rather low, then merely managing issues as they arise may not be sufficient. You may be in a project that can succeed only through realistic replanning.
If you are fortunate enough to be on a project that has few issues that require the use of project Issue Management methods, then congratulations on your good fortune. It is more likely that your project, particularly if it has a moderate or high overall risk, has a plethora of issues to manage. You’ll want to be familiar with the issue management pitfalls listed above; as well, your project will almost certainly benefit from developing an expertise in the use of Issue Management methods that are appropriate for the complexity and size of your project.