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A Five Step Approach to Issue Management


It’s time for the weekly Project Management Office meeting. You’ve actually come to enjoy these weekly meetings as it brings everyone together, allows an opportunity to review what’s on the risk log and discuss anything that might have become an issue. Then you can move to issue management, fixing problems, making decisions, and every now and then you get the feeling of accomplishment because you’re moving the project forward.

Managers and key resources start coming into the conference room for the meeting and take their places. Everyone has their ad- hoc assigned seats and knows what their speaking part is going to be during the meeting. You’ve prepped everyone and made sure there are no surprises. Your issue tracking software is up to date. As far as you know everything is ON TRACK.

The meeting begins and it’s off to a good start. So far, so good. Risks are being discussed, concerns are surfacing, and resolutions are coming to the fore. Then Stan opens his mouth. Stan is an issues management nightmare. No matter how hard you try, you can never anticipate what Stan is going to say. He doesn’t disappoint. Stan drops a bombshell that nobody was aware of or even knew was a concern. It never showed up on any project management issue log or management reports, was brand new and it implicated three other groups that were in the room.

The meeting is now officially off-track as World War III breaks loose. Managers and resources are up in arms. They didn’t even know this was an issue and now this guy brings it up front of everyone for the first time…including the project sponsors and executives. Tempers flare, derisive names are lobbed across the table and tension fills the room.

Then everyone’s gaze shifts toward you as the Project Manager. Surely you knew about this, didn’t you? You have issue tracking software, don’t you? Aren’t you supposed to be all over issue management and tracking? Your career passes before your eyes. Your heart is pounding and your temperature is rising. Your face has turned beet red as you contemplate crawling under the table. What do you do when issue management has become your personal issue?

Catch Your Breath

Stop. Take a breath. issue management_ out of control!First things first. In the split seconds between the outburst and your response think about this. Conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s actually healthy with a project team that has respect for each other and works well together (with the exception of Stan). It means there is passion, pride of ownership, and accountability to the work being done. It means people understand that something went wrong, that there are ramifications from the project going off track and as a matter of course this upsets them.

You don’t want the opposite of people being upset to happen either. The converse of this type of outburst is indifference. Indifference can be summed up in one word…“whatever”. The bombshell is dropped and everyone says “whatever”, “who cares”, or “there’s nothing I can do about it”. Indifference can manifest itself in myriads of ways all culminating in nothingness.

A Five Step Approach to Issue Management

Once you have your mind wrapped around the idea that this outburst is not necessarily a negative thing (that should take less than a second), you can start getting to work. The following five steps will help you with issue management and restoring balance to the universe.

1. Hear Them Out

Hear Stan out. Sincerely and attentively listen to his concerns. Even though his timing was terrible, there is most likely merit and value in what he has to say. LISTEN to what everyone else has to say. Give everyone equal opportunity to express their concerns, how it will impact their world, and that they wish they had known about this sooner because they could have done something about. Don’t allow people to interrupt each other. Everyone deserves an equal amount of time to express their concerns and work through their business management issues. Serve as the moderator. Stop people talking when you’ve heard the same comments repeatedly, and draw others out that are not saying much.

2. Serve as a Translator

issue management_sereve as a translator

Once you feel enough time has passed and people have had the opportunity to express their concerns, sum up what you heard and do so diplomatically. Remove inflammatory words such as “you never”, “you always”, “you can’t” and “you won’t”.

Acknowledge everyone’s concerns, remove the emotion, and focus on the facts. It’s all part of the issues management process. Facts can sometimes be elusive. You may need to dig a little harder, ask some clarifying questions, and throw some inaccurate statements out the window. Once everyone realizes you are not biased toward any side but want to focus on the SOLUTION, they will be that much more apt to deal in reality and get out of the emotional realm.

3. Get Everyone on Common Ground

Now that you have emotion-free facts to work with, your next step is to get everyone on common ground. A good place to start is that everyone wants the best for the company, does not want to negatively impact the customer and wants to keep some type of normalcy and not introduce chaos into their own departments. That’s a great place to start in order to start talking about a SOLUTION.

4. Develop a Solution with all Stakeholders

With everyone’s defenses and emotions down to DEFCON 5 and the realization that all have more in common than they thought, you can now begin working on a solution together. It’s amazing what will surface once tempers have cooled and calm heads prevail. Start connecting the dots, thinking outside the box or whatever form of business cliché you would like to get the problem figured out.issue management_follow up

5. Follow-Up

Work with the managers throughout the week to make sure they have what they need to implement the plan. Track and monitor the issues in your issue tracking software. Give this your highest attention since it started out as such a potential big deal. This will certainly come up at next week’s PMO meeting as part of the issue management portion of the discussion and be handled just like any other issue. Use this as the benchmark for how issues are handled on a going forward basis.

Sometimes it is just not possible for you to know every single issue that is going on with your projects as project manager. You have to have a lot of trust in people and your teams to get their jobs done. No matter how hard you try, at times you may be blindsided. The trick is to stay calm, work through the process above and bring closure to whatever is negatively impacting the project. That’s what issue management is all about!

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