PM-Foundations – Managing Your Project Issues

To me the most annoying, and sometimes the most disruptive type of project churn is issue related churn. Open issues distract team members from the work at hand, and often slow progress to achieve project milestones. At its worse, more time can be spent talking about issues than project work. If the rate of identifying issues outpaces closing them, the project can be overwhelmed with issues. Projects are paralyzed by project issues when team members cannot complete tasks/deliverables because they are awaiting resolution of project issues.

Significant issue related churn is generally due to the project team not having the appropriate focus or urgency required to close issues. In some situations the team is not empowered to take actions or make decisions required to close issues. In either case, issues that do not close create “baggage” for the team, and eventually create roadblocks or challenges for the project.

Hopefully this blog gets you thinking about how to identify when issues are negatively impacting your project, and what you can do to get them under control. Issues are not a bad thing, as long as you are able to manage them, and not vice versa.

How Do Issues Overwhelm Projects?

Here are some of the common indications that issues may be overwhelming your project, or at minimum impeding progress.

  • Too many – The obvious indication of issue related churn is the number of open issues — especially if there are a significant number marked “high” priority. When there are so many issues that you do not know where to start to get them under control, you probably have too many. When the number of issues becomes significant, you start to see processes like “triage” introduced to identify the ones that “really matter”.
  • They bounce around – Some project teams do not seem to close issues, they just reassign them to someone who needs to have another meeting to discuss the issue. A good way to identify the inability to effectively close issues is to look at the history associated with the issues. When issues are owned by multiple people, and the source of multiple meetings, the team is probably not focusing on the right actions required to close the issue.
  • They keep coming back – One of the most annoying aspects of issue related churn is when closed issues are reopened. This occurs if the either the right people were not involved, or the correct actions were not taken to close the original issue. When this happens multiple times on a project I am not sure if I am more upset with the person that reopens the issues, or the person that did not close it properly in the first place.
  • They appear out of nowhere – Often times an issues is raised that makes you wonder, “I wonder why that was not raised before now?” The earlier a potential problem is identified in the project life cycle, the easier and less costly it is to resolve. Therefore, as issues are identified late in the project, the more disruptive issue resolution becomes. As the project manager, you need to strike a good balance between aggressively managing issue resolution and encouraging team members to identify them. The last thing you want is to have team members keep issues to themselves because they think it will be viewed as a “bad thing” to raise a new issue.

6 Tips to Managing Your Project Issues

  1. Capture – My first tip is pretty obvious. Make sure that as issues are identified they are captured. This means that processes and tools must be established early on in the project to enable identification and tracking of issues. In addition, it is important as the project manager to create an environment where people feel “safe” to raise an issue. Having said that, I do encourage the team to be thinking about ways to address the issue at the time they raise it. The old adage “if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem” definitely describes some team members.
  2. Accountability – In my opinion the most important element of effectively managing issues is establishing a single person that truly feels accountable for resolving the issue. Issues are best assigned to people that have something “at stake” in the outcome of resolving the issue. The issues should either have an impact on the component of the project they are responsible for, or have an impact on the component of the product they are responsible for.
  3. Action – When team members are providing updates on issues, the focus should be on what actions have been identified to close the issue. I do not necessarily consider “we have a meeting set up to discuss this issue” to be a very effective next step. The more appropriate action items are focused on what decisions need to be made, analysis performed, or requirements defined to determine how to move forward and resolve the issue.
  4. Measure – As is the case in most project management processes, it is important to have the appropriate metrics in place to manage issues. To establish a high degree of focus and sense of urgency, I prefer to measure and communicate high priority issues in the form of absolute numbers. Metrics like net change and average age are best managed through trend analysis. In addition, it is important to keep track of the overall impact of issues on the project. This metric can be tracked within the change control process.
  5. Close – Ensure that the issue management process includes a step to validate that the issue is actually closed. This step can be as simple as a quick review of the recently closed issues in your core team meetings. It is important that team members agree that the appropriate actions have been taken to permanently solve the problem.
  6. Timeout – If an issue, a group of issues, or the issues in aggregate are truly overwhelming your project it is sometimes appropriate to bite the bullet and call a timeout. This happens when issues are causing the project to miss significant milestones, and corrective actions are not in place to formalize the impact and get the project “back on track”. During the timeout, focused effort should be placed on resolving the high impact issues, reducing the overall number of issues, formalizing the impact of the issues, and rebaselining the plan. I also recommend a quick lessons learned process to identify the source of the problems, and adjustments required to prevent the project team returning to the same place during a future phase of the project.

Using SharePoint to Manage Risks & Issues

One of the most straightforward applications of project management best practices using SharePoint relates to managing risks and issues. Maintaining a Risk & Issues Tracking list within your project team site improves the structure and accessibility associated with this important best practice area. This is a huge improvement over the “offline” tracking Excel spreadsheet that is reviewed and updated on a semi-regular basis only by the project manager.

Creating the Risk & Issue Tracking Log in SharePoint

I find that the Issue Tracking type list is a great starting point for creating the Risk & Issue Tracking Log in SharePoint. The following are the standard fields associated with this type of list that I leverage to create the Risk and Issue tracking tool:

  • Id – System assigned unique identifier for the risk or issue.
  • Title – Headline associated with the risk/issue.
  • Description – More details about the risk/issue (background and source of the risk/issue).
  • Category – Tailor this field to capture the risk/issue categories associated with your project. In most cases, this field is used to group the risks/issues by type/source of risk or functional areas.
  • Priority (Magnitude) – Used to capture the magnitude of the impact of the risk or issue on the project. I tailor this field to be a choice between 9 (high impact), 3 (medium impact), and 1 (low impact). Assigning a numeric value enables calculation of the overall risk/issue ranking. The values 9, 3, and 1 provides separation between the higher impact risks/issues and medium & low impact risks/issues.
  • Assigned to (Owner) – The team member that owns management of the risk approach or issue resolution.
  • Due Date (Target date) – Represents the target date for the resolution of an issue. The date assigned for a risk is generally when the potential event is anticipated to occur and needs to be proactively managed.
  • Status – Tailor this field to capture the current status of the risk or issue. Try not to overcomplicate the status – something like Active, Resolved, and Closed is adequate to communicate the status of a risk/issue.
  • Comments – Utilized to explain the current status of the risk or issue.

The following metadata is added to this list to improve the tracking of risks and issues based upon the best practices associated with Risk and Issue Management:

  • Risk or Issue – A selection of Risk or Issue. This field provides the capability to maintain risks and issues in the same list. If a Risk turns into an Issue, you just need to update this field (vs. re-enter it into another list).
  • Project Impact – A multiple line text field that is set-up to explain the impact of the risk or issue on the project (schedule, scope, budget, quality). This description helps explain the magnitude ranking assigned to the risk/issue.
  • Probability – Used to estimate the probability of the risk occurring. Similar to the magnitude field, I set-up this field to be a choice between 9 (high probability), 3 (medium probability), and 1 (low probability). A value of 9 is assigned for issues (the event has already occurred). Assigning a numeric value enables calculation of the overall risk/issue ranking. The values 9, 3, and 1 provides separation between the most risks/issues and medium/low risks.
  • Risk ranking – The risk ranking is set-up as a calculated field to establish the overall risk/issue ranking based upon a combination of the magnitude and probability of the risk (magnitude x probability). An “81” risk/issue represents a high impact and high probability item that triggers more focus and attention from the team.
  • Risk approach – The planned risk management approach. This field is set-up with an option of Mitigate, Avoid, or Accept.

Below is an example of the “All Items” view of the Risk and Issue Tracking Log list in SharePoint.

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Creating Views

Once the list is set-up and populated with data, multiple views can be created to communicate more effectively with different audiences. If you are talking to your core team, you will pull up the Active Risks or Issues, and filter on different categories. If you are preparing your status report or communicating with your project sponsor, you will use the High Impact Risks or Issues views. Individuals on the team will l focus on the risks or issues that they own, using the My Issues view. Below is an example of different views created for the Risk and Issues Tracking Log.

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Exporting to Excel

I am not an advocate of pulling the issues “offline” into Excel for communication purposes. It is best to provide your stakeholders access to the view that gives them the relevant information based upon their needs. However, on larger projects with significant amounts of data, it is helpful to be able to export the list into Excel to perform additional analysis (e.g. creating charts that depict risk/issue related trends). Below is an example of the risk and issue tracking log exported into Excel.

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Summary

Diligence around resolving issues and reducing the probability or impact of potential risks is a key PM best practice, particularly during the execution phase of the project. Use of SharePoint to manage risks and issues enables a more structured and accessible process, creating a project environment that encourages and facilitates timely identification and resolution or mitigation of risks and issues. In addition, it provides a strong tool to deliver targeted communication to key stakeholders. Teams that most effectively manage risks and issues are the teams that avoid major surprises and set-backs throughout the project life cycle.