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 worst, 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 issue 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.