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How to Handle Project Issues

This is a guest post by our good friend Gavan Murphy.

Issues!

We’ve all got them, and projects are no different. They’re like weeds - you can pretend they don’t exist until they take over your garden (or project).

Some projects are so dynamic there’s a multitude of issues to juggle on a daily basis. Other projects work at a different pace, or have much longer time frames and potentially fewer issues.

Regardless of the style of project you’re running, a Project Manager ignores issues at his or her own peril. 

Don’t fall into the traps

Like most things in life, the more mistakes you make experience you have the better you become at noticing the weeds in and around your project environment. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that lots of project issues is a bad sign for your project.

Nor is the opposite true, that few issues means the project is running well.

It’s ultimately your judgement, responsibility, and dare I say it, honesty as a PM what you choose to notice, raise and manage through to resolution.

How do you tell if you’re dealing with issues effectively?

Three measures I regularly use are:

  • if I can’t succinctly tell a stranger what the three major issues I’m dealing with on a daily basis are, I’m not on the ball;
  • if I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about work, whatever it is that woke me up is an issue that needs some (more) attention; and
  • if an issue hasn’t been updated in more than a month, I’m in denial or it’s not really an issue.

I’ve also discovered, the better systems I have in place for managing issues the more willing I am to be honest about them.

Make sure all the verbs are covered

From the good book (PRINCE2) your issue management system needs to cater for all the verbs: 

  • capturing;
  • describing;
  • prioritising;
  • assigning responsibility;
  • monitoring;
  • reporting;
  • resolving (as quickly as you can); and
  • escalating issues if they get beyond your remit. 

The importance of software

I’ve been using Atlassian’s JIRA for managing my project issues for more than 18 months now. In short it’s brilliant! It handles each of the issue management verbs competently, except automatically recording issues for me J.

There’s a large number of tools available for PMs to use, but issue management software is one of the most important in my opinion, because it will do all the heavy lifting for you.

If you have the discipline to capture and update issue details then:

  • reporting becomes pain free;
  • prioritisation is much easier because you can see all the issues in one place; and
  • escalation is a matter of assigning the issue until resolved.

Using an issue management tool leaves you free to focus on project delivery - the stuff you get paid for!

Garbage In and Garbage Out

Of course the old adage applies: garbage in and garbage out. Your issue management system won’t replace face-to-face conversations or the need to wear out shoe leather engaging those involved in issue resolution.

But it does record history, reduce email spam, diminish finger poking and blame. If used effectively, it makes people accountable for their part - you included!

Effective issue management won’t necessarily guarantee a successful outcome for your project, there’s a lot more to it than that. Some project issues are so intractable, for all sorts of reasons, that they require constant advocacy and energy on your part to get them resolved.

However without a willingness to tackle them, or get a handle on their management, it will be increasingly difficult to see the garden for the weeds.

What approaches work best for you with issue management? Have you got any horror stories to share?

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Gavan started his passion for Project Management 20 years ago, initially in engineering projects, and then following his interest into ICT communications, infrastructure and software development projects. 

He has a knack for building high performing project teams and when given enough rope, has delivered some really challenging project outcomes. Most of his project success has come from a preparedness to learn (and learn fast), anticipate where things are heading, diligence and seeking out opportunities to build strong working relationships. 

He shares common sense insights based on his experience, hard knocks and snippets of brilliance he has picked up from other PMs along the way.

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