First Things First

Slalom Consultant Carl Manello

Carl Manello is a Solution Lead for Program & Project Management based in Chicago who enjoys exploring how to tightly couple the art and science of project delivery with business operations.

“Set priorities for your goals. A major part of successful living lies in the ability to put first things first. Indeed, the reason most major goals are not achieved is that we spend our time doing second things first.”
– Robert J. McKain

Issue management is one of my favorite focus areas for improvement when I look to help clients improve their program or project management capabilities.  Over the last twenty-plus years I have seen scores of initiatives, including large-scale enterprise-wide strategic programs, focus on the basic task of creating list of issues.  Of course, in most cases they utilize a smart looking spreadsheet or even a database to record information.  While these initiatives have done a fair job of capturing some standardized information to populate in the de rigueur fields of the typical tool suites, they have been ineffective at managing the issues.

Data capture is not what issue management is all about.  Issues and action items need to be worked and resolved!

When working with large-scale and troubled projects in one of my earlier lives, I was assigned to a financial systems replacement program for a Fortune 250 company.  The program team had smiles on their faces, when asked about their issue management process, and produced a list several pages long.  This team believed that they were doing it all right: they had recorded all known issues.  Yet, the issues they recorded were never updated, were not aged, and had no resources assigned to “own” remediation.  All they had was a continually growing laundry list of every issue they had encountered.

For those of you that have worked on projects with me, you know that I have a strong focus on ownership assignment for issues.  I am equally stubborn about the need to track dates and age issues.  Typically, if there is no name on the issue, no one is accountable.  If there is no expected resolution date, there is no prioritization or focus on resolution.

Prioritization is critical.  With usually more issues to address than we have time for in a day, knowing where to focus our effort is imperative. Whether remediating program issues or simply tracking our own personal “to do’s”, we need to focus on the most important, most urgent items first.  A guest columnist in PM Network magazine, Neal Whitten, wrote about this viewpoint in a 2009 issue of PMI’s glossy monthly journal.  He notes that over his years of reviews for troubled initiatives, project managers usually allowed the most important problems to drift.  Neal’s advice:

To maintain focus, begin your day with a to-do list and put your top three problems right at the top.  Say your list has 10 items.  If you end the day having not worked on any of your top three, but manage to cross off your bottom seven, you shouldn’t feel good about your efforts.  You worked on the wrong things.  If, instead, when your day ended, you didn’t work on any of your bottom seven but made significant progress on just one of your top three, then you’ve truly accomplished something.

Work to determine what is most important, then alter your focus towards resolution based on the timeliness of the issue or action item.  Make sure you are notating your issue log with updates about “where you are at” with each particular issue.  And, ensure that whomever is assigned knows it is theirs to address.

When, like Stephen Covey and Robert McKain, we put first things first, we will find ourselves more able to attain our goals.

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About Carl M. Manello
I am Slalom Consulting's Practice Lead for Delivery Effectiveness. I work to support organizations' capability and delivery maturity -- not just IT organizations -- so that their initiatives run more predictably, efficiently and provide the best results.

5 Responses to First Things First

  1. Pingback: Issue Log « Martin Webster, Esq.

  2. Dave Gordon says:

    Issues should be triaged as soon as possible into one of three categories: previously identified risks that have metastasized into certainties, for which we should have a risk response ready; challenges not previously identified as risks, that have “come in over the transom,” and need a response as soon as possible; and perception problems, in that a stakeholder has expressed an unfounded fear that needs to be allayed. Your risk register should be used to manage the first, your communications plan the third, but your project team needs to be engaged immediately to address the challenges. Whether its a technical challenge, a business process issue, compliance with an external requirement, or just a leaky pipe, the team needs to own it, and the project manager needs to facilitate (rather than “direct”) development of a solution. Recording an issue is entirely secondary to resolving it.

    • Dave,

      Thanks for comment. I agree! Action first to address the challenges that getting in the team’s way; then get to the administration. We need to focus on getting road blocks out of the way



  3. Pingback: New PM Articles for the Week of May 9 – 15 « The Practicing IT Project Manager

  4. Pingback: Project Issue Management « Martin Webster, Esq.

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