The Secret Life of Issue Lists Part 3: Issues Tip Projects: A Social View

Issue lists are the unsung heroes of the Project Lifestyle. This is the last of a series of three posts on how a new look at issue list might radically impact your project outcomes (in a positive way I hasten to add).

In Part 1 I opened the discussion by looking at why issues are such slippery things to manage. I then got perspectives on managing issues from various colleagues who know a thing or two about them.

In Part 2 I applied the Getting Things Done productivity process to derive a workflow for handling issues in a project setting. The key idea here is to introduce a robust, repeatable process to capture and work through project issues. I make the point that

  • Issues running around in the wild are the dangerous ones.
  • Once you capture them, you can tame and manage them.
  • So doing, you exercise a lot more control over the unknowns in your project.

In this post I want to look how some concepts from the social sciences seem to offer proof that a robust issue management process will contribute to improved project outcomes overall, and that this is the secret life of issue lists.

Perhaps I could start by repeating my assertion that projects typically fail due to a build-up of unaddressed issues in one or more areas.

Whether the issues have been recognized, or not, is not relevant at this point. Nor is the failure mode (common mode failure or cascade failure or otherwise: although project failure modes is well worth a look in a separate post).

The key thing is that issues can tip projects into failure.

So where do the social sciences fit into this discussion about issues and project failure?

Some of the theory mentioned by Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point caught my attention.

He suggests that one aspect of rapidly induced change is context. Environment shapes behavior.

Specifically the Broken Windows theory is advanced to show how small issues left unaddressed (broken windows left unrepaired, litter left on the streets) can create an environmental context that accelerates the growth of urban crime.

“A successful strategy for preventing vandalism… is to fix the problems when they are small [my emphasis, AS]. Repair the broken windows within a short time, say, a day or a week, and the tendency is that vandals are much less likely to break more windows or do further damage. Clean up the sidewalk every day, and the tendency is for litter not to accumulate (or for the rate of littering to be much less). Problems do not escalate and thus respectable residents do not flee a neighborhood.

The theory thus makes two major claims: that further petty crime and low-level anti-social behavior will be deterred, and that major crime will, as a result, be prevented…”

The theory is not without it’s critics and supporters. Empirical evidence does seem to show that there is a measureable, beneficial effect.

So if we create a project environment we have strong processes to manage the knowns (our methods tasks/deliverables) and strong processes to manage the unknowns (our issues handling process), what effect will that have on the project participants?

I suggest two effects:

  • Improved ability to surface and capture issues (because your team and stakeholders know you have a robust, formalized, transparent process to address their concerns)
  • Improved ability to manage and resolve issues (because it is simpler – though not always easier – to manage and resolve issues that you know about

This then is the secret life of issue lists.

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