Every project starts with a plan (or at least it should). Once the project starts to  unfold, that plan will likely be tested in multiple ways – through unexpected questions and problems. If the course or outcome of the project hangs in the balance, then that question or problem has become an “issue”. Issues must be addressed so that the project plan can be maintained. This is issues management.

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Looking at this initial definition, it appears as if project issues and risks are one and the same. Although the distinctions may subtle, issues differ from risks in terms of predictability and management approach. The fact that issues will arise is predictable, but the specific substance of any given issue is not.  Risks are predictable circumstances, those which should be identified before a
project begins.

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Issues can (and do) pop up at any time during a project, and must be dealt with quickly, without the benefit of pre-defined solutions. Typically, project issues involve the project deliverable itself, in the form of unexpected technical problems, incompatibilities, bugs or other conflicts. However, during the course of a project, it is likely that other issues will also arise, relating to project schedules,  resources, materials, finances, or other unexpected changes in the project environment.

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Issues management is part of project governance, and related practices (how issues will be managed) must be determined at the early stages of the project. Issues management practices must then be carried out consistently throughout the project life-cycle, relying on status reporting for communication and decision making.

Getting Ready for Issues Management

Just because you can’t predict issues, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be prepared to handle issues once they arrive. Every project should begin with a defined process for issues management, applied and document as part of the project governance phase and executed as part of project oversight. At a minimum, effective issues management practices will cover the following process elements:

1. What are your project goals and objectives?
2. What tools will be used to raise, resolve, and track issues as they arise
and as they are closed?
3. How will issues be raised to the project manager, project sponsor,
project executive and/or steering committee?
4. How will issues be reviewed and assigned?
5. How will issues be monitored and tracked for timely resolution?
6. How will issues be escalated in the event they cannot be resolved and closed?

Aside from addressing the questions listed above, there are two key factors to issues management success that must be embraced from the outset – resource assignments and communication.

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Managed Issues Require the Right Resources

Once an issue is raised and documented, resource assignments must be made. Depending on the nature of the issue, any project team member or resource may be involved. For example, an unexpected bug in a piece of software will likely be assigned to a technical team member, who may be called upon to resolve the problem, or who may have to track the problem with a vendor. On the other hand, an issue of an administrative nature (i.e. the lack of available facilities for staging new equipment) may be assigned to a facilities manager, who may otherwise have limited involvement in other aspects of the project.

Since most issues must be resolved quickly, with little fanfare, it is important to assign issues to those who can hit the ground running whenever possible.

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Managed Issues Require Timely Communication

The second key capability for issues management success is the ability to track and report “issue status”, from the point at which issues are first raised and assigned, through to resolution. This is achieved through effective issues related communication, delivered in meetings and via documented “status reporting”. Depending upon the complexity and visibility of any given project, issues meetings
may become a regular routine, providing the oppportunity to interact and brainstorm issues related solutions. Issues meetings can bring an important perspective to the project process, providing the opportunity for the entire team to consider issues, plan actions and take a “big picture” perspective. These meetings can take place as needed, on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, to ensure that issues are properly tracked and managed.

And, documented status reports will supplement these meetings, providing issues related details and status (whether an issue is open, pending, resolved or other relevant condition.

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