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A Project Manager’s Guide to Proper Care & Feeding of Project Issues

By Ron Montgomery (1199 words)
Posted in Project & Process Management on November 12, 2012

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By Ron Montgomery, Management Consultant & Owner, OnPoint, LLC

Your project kick off meeting was a great success and the team is beginning to execute the plan.   Then some nefarious trolls begin to arrive in your email inbox.  They vary in external appearance, but they have a common name: Project Issues.  When they first arrive, they are small and appear to be harmless.  When ignored, they grow and multiply and sometimes damage the project manager’s career.  So, it is critically important that you focus on the care and feeding of these trolls.  Here is a systematic guide to managing all project issues before they get out of control.


Step 1 – Check his identification

The external appearance may range from the technical issue troll (identified by Scotch-taped horned rim glasses) to the political issue troll (identified by a fake smile and brass knuckles).  Regardless of the appearance, the behavior is consistent – issues actively delay progress and divert attention from the project deliverables.  To be more formal, the PMBOK Guide – Fourth Edition® defines an issue as “a point or matter in question or in dispute, or a point or matter that is not settled and is under discussion or over which there are opposing views or disagreements (Project Management Institute, 2008).”  Don’t confuse these issue trolls with risks – which represent problems which might occur at some point in the future.  Risks are a different type of critter. Remember that ‘risks’ are potentialities; project ‘issues’ are real and active. 


Step 2 – Conduct a physical examination

This process, also known as framing an issue, will provide information that will clarify the critical attributes of the troll.  Following are some questions that will help.

  • How old is he?
    • When did the issue begin?
    • Did the issue exist before the project began?
  • How big is he?
    • What impact will he have on costs, quality, or schedule?
    • Will there be an ongoing impact the business after the project is complete?
  • Where does he live?
    • Does he make his home in the software or data?
    • Will he impact operational processes?
  • What does he look like?
    • Since an issue involves opposing views, you will need to describe him from multiple perspectives.
    • Initial appearance may be deceiving, so be sure to ask probing questions.
  • Will it be possible to make him go away? 
    • Can he be sent away until after the project is complete?
    • Can he be confined to a secure area?
  • Who owns him?  
    • Does a member of the project team own him?  Or someone outside of the team
    • Does he have multiple owners?


Make sure to record this information in a shared issue log document so that you and your team can easily track all the issues you will encounter.


Step 3 – Develop plan for care and feeding

Facilitate meetings with the owner and other subject matter experts to determine how to care for and feed him.   Make sure to invite people who represent all perspectives and employ the following facilitation techniques:

  • Ensure the discussion remains objective and focused on the issue and his care and feeding.
  • Utilize brainstorming techniques to ensure everyone participates in the discussion.
  • Document all feasible solution options and try to secure consensus of the attendees regarding the pros and cons of each solution.
  • Based on the potential optional solutions, validate your earlier assumptions about ownership.


Step 4 – Wrap him up

The owner may be able handle the resolution directly or with some assistance by some of the team members.  Make sure assignments and roles are clearly understood, and then check back with the owner periodically to make sure the issue doesn't grow or multiply.  If it is not possible to resolve the issue at a team level, be prepared to escalate the issue for resolution at the steering committee level.  If this is necessary, make sure the issue owner actively participates in the steering committee discussion of the issue.  Remember that you do not own the issue troll; you simply own the responsibility to ensure that he is properly fed.


After resolution, make sure to record the details of the resolution in your issue log.   You can be sure that, a few months down the road, someone will develop amnesia and attempt to revive the issue, thus creating the dreaded zombie issue troll.


Sidebar – Advice for Senior Leadership

Typically issues are identified within the team during the normal flow of project communications.  On occasion, however, someone will report an issue directly to you rather than the project manager.  Such inappropriate escalation undercuts the authority of the project manager and results in you spending time resolving issues instead of your project manager.  When someone attempts to escalate an issue directly to you, first ask if he has reported it to the project manager.  If not, tell him to go through appropriate channels and escalate to you only if the project manager is not responsive.


Have you ever neglected a project issue because it appeared to be insignificant?  Did it escalate into something detrimental to your project success?  How did you mitigate the situation?  Join us in our Project Management community to continue this and other discussions.


{#/pub/images/RonMontgomery1.jpg}Written by Ron Montgomery, Management Consultant & Owner, OnPoint, LLC Ron is certified as a Project Management Professional, Agile Certified Practitioner and Certified ScrumMaster with over 35 years of hands-on experience in business planning, software development, process improvement & deployment of software solutions.  By partnering with clients to drive business value from technology projects, Ron assists clients with business planning, IT strategy, project and program management, vendor selection and team training/mentoring.



Do you have a management question for Ron?  Post it in our Project Management Community and he will be happy to help: Ask an Expert


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Comments (2)

Elaine Gagne posted on: November 26, 2012

Thank you! A lot of people don't realize we EAs are also critical project managers! This is a great article.

Anne Marie Kjelland posted on: November 28, 2012

As a former corporate project manager as well as a wedding consultant and now a team player for meetings worldwide, I appreciate this take on issues. Project Management is a skill that is transferable across content areas and even in life. Pay attention to the orange flags and make them red; never ignor them in your work or personal life.

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