Separating risks and issues (or not…)

When things get confusing I always rely on a handy model, image or diagram to clarify things. So it was often frustruting for me when, in the early days of my project management career, I started to scratch the surface of traditional project management to get to grips with the fuzzy concepts of risk and uncertainty. Those risk lists, or risk registers, illustrated a lovely model, and they padded out a business case very nicely, but they didn’t seem to help as much in practice as they should have done.

One part of this is the matter of “risks versus issues”. If we uncover something nasty we’re often encouraged to mark it as one or the other. Often they get processed differently—for example, issues might go to the project board, but risks may additionally go into a central risk database. The difference between a risk and an issue is often explained as “an issue is something that’s happening now, and a risk is something that might happen in the future.” But then I came across this from David Espina on Stack Exchange:

For example, a patient presents to his doctor with high blood pressure and cholesterol, over weight, family history of heart disease, and sedentary life style. All of these are issues based on the normal definition of an issue. However, all of these are also risk factors for the risk of heart attack. The heart attack is not certain nor its severity. If this was a project, would you log the BP, cholesterol, obesity, family hx, lack of exercise in the issue log or the heart attack in the risk log…or both?

Good question. Is it a risk or is it an issue? And I can’t help also asking: Who cares? The distinction is far less important than what we’re going to do about it. (If we don’t care, then the risk-versus-issue debate is really about how to best sweep it under the carpet.) We may say we have to deal with issues now and risks in the future, but most issues don’t usually need action now-now (a 10 minute delay may not matter; how about 30 minutes; more…?) and many future uncertainties need action pretty quickly to stop them getting worse.

It’s too easy to get hung up on these things. What’s important is an effective and approprite response. As so often, we should step back and focus on the bigger picture of ensuring success.

Photo by AntMan3001