An issue is a cause that can disrupt your project for any number of reasons, preventing the project from continuing to achieve the intended result. This can happen at any time and to anyone and this is where issue management comes in. It helps you prepare for situations you do not expect and teaches you how to deal with them.

Some of these problems cannot be eliminated quite so easily, but if you act correctly, you can limit the damage. Read on to find out how you can be stronger as a project manager.

Table of contents

What is the difference between an issue and a crisis?

Do not confuse an issue with a crisis. Issues are in fact precursors to crises. Issues can get out of hand because of a lack of communication or wrong decisions. Be very aware when using these terms, because the word crisis quickly provokes panic that might not be well received by your employees.

A crisis is experienced immediately by the company and will be felt in the long term. An issue, on the other hand, can fade into the background, so you don’t have to involve the whole team.

So how do you know when there is an issue or a crisis? Bring all employees together and discuss their opinions. As this is obviously subjective, there is a risk of overreaction. If this is made public, there is a risk of it getting into the hands of the media and blowing up the whole situation. Your company’s reputation is tarnished and potential customers will avoid you. Note that bad press almost always leads to a crisis.

A good example of this is the Delhaize plastic crisis. The company launched a campaign with building blocks, but customers were outraged by the superfluous plastic packaging. Negative reactions came in via social media and Delhaize realised that they had no choice but to react immediately.

Over the weekend they found a way to communicate with both employees and customers. They admitted that a mistake was made, but the company soon made the necessary adjustments. An important lesson that everyone can take from this is that you have to communicate effectively and quickly and that the message does not always have to be perfect.

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Project manager checklist: Is the issue a crisis?

Not sure whether you are dealing with an issue or a crisis? Make a distinction using the checklist below. Although a crisis may be difficult to fix, resolving issues can actually be an easy task with the right approach.

  • Is the issue an emotionally linked one? Examples could be whether or not it has to do with children, animal suffering, racism, development aid, etc.
  • How plausible do the stakeholders think the issue is linked to your company? (Can the public imagine that the issue is linked to your company?) Examples could be social media platforms being criticised for their approach to privacy or companies pretending to be sustainable.
  • Is the issue easy to portray in the media? An example could be Suit Supply’s advertising campaigns being unfriendly to women or issues that have already been highlighted in the media such as taxes, energy prices, etc.
  • What is the connection with other issues/crises? For example, a scandal surrounding the sexual harassment by Harvey Weinstein. Afterward, many people were accused of the same acts.
  • What is the influence of the messenger? Examples of influential interest groups are NGOs, Test-Achats, or trade unions.
  • How dynamic is the issue? The best example of an issue becoming dynamic is demonstrators. One week there can be 100 participants at a demonstration and a few weeks after that there can be thousands of demonstrators at different locations.
  • How isolated are you as a company from the issue? An example is that there may be redundancies in certain sectors for well-considered reasons (car industry). Because the sector has a common problem, it would be best to communicate through a federation or association.
  • Is the issue easy to solve? An example is the previously mentioned packaging issue at Delhaize. By sitting together and acting quickly, issues are easily resolved.

How do you track down issues?

Just because you can’t always predict future issues, doesn’t mean that you can’t anticipate them as a company. Before any project begins, you must have a strategic plan that incorporates an issue identification and issue analysis section.

You need to think carefully about the project’s objectives and which issue tracking system or issue management software will be used to trigger and detect issues. Once you have identified an issue, refer back to the list of people to contact you had planned beforehand in a detailed issue resolution process. For this task, usually the project manager, project sponsor, or project executive take control.

Next, think carefully about how you are going to report the conflict. Make sure the issue description is as detailed as possible and that it properly reflects the current situation. Finally, you need to find a way to check and see if the issue has been resolved effectively.

Keep in mind that you need to think beyond the conflict itself. What will happen if an issue escalates and what is the worst-case scenario?

How can you apply an issue management process?

Keep an eye on everything

When an issue arises, put your current activities on pause for a while so that you can deal with the conflict first and continue the project as soon as possible. During the course of any project, it is crucial that every member of the project team is tracking progress and that they keep a detailed record of all their actions. This makes it easy to not only find potential solutions but also analyze issues and how things can be done differently next time.

It is not only good for yourself, but also for the company. Based on the mistakes made, the organisation or the structure of a project can be adjusted so that better action can be taken if the mistake occurs again. Consider writing up a ‘project’s lessons learned analysis’ after every project.

Risk management

Risk management is a part of any business’ life. What’s better than managing issues or solving them? Preventing them from happening altogether. Once you have written the project objectives, write up a risk management process. These processes are there to identify any possibles risks of harm to projects, harm that doesn’t ensure successful projects, unresolved issues that may have negative impacts, and anything else that may arise.

Note: Good issue management also means that you never have a case where an issue remains unresolved. To speak up the risk management process and avoid setting up a future issue or crisis for the next project, resolve issues as soon as they come about.

Communication is essential

Make sure your entire team is aware of what is happening, especially when issues arise. Keep in touch with each other throughout the process. Some team members may have had previous experience with specific issues, so it is never out of place to ask for feedback.

Make your employees aware that issues happen in every project and that timely detection is essential. Make it a routine to organise meetings and listen to what your colleagues have to say. You can even get help from external parties such as a crisis management agency.

Things can always get out of hand

Every project manager encounters situations where external help is needed, possibly in other teams. If you do not call in the help of the right people, the issue can turn into a crisis. Good project issue management is realising that the solution can sometimes be found elsewhere. Use whatever means are necessary to prevent the issue from escalating.

Conclusion

Every project has its issues. As a project manager, it is up to you to learn to deal with these and to ensure that similar situations are avoided.

It is important to realise that the word issue and crisis are two totally different concepts. Crises are situations that you cannot get out of quickly, so be careful when using this term. It can provoke panic in your employees and this should be avoided at all costs.

Think as a team and grow by sitting together and discussing. There is a bright spot, issues can always be solved. By reacting in a timely and correct manner, you avoid chaos in today’s work environment.