Keep it simple for effective issues management
The problem with issues management is that is neither one thing nor the other. An issue is not business as usual and cannot be resolved as an informal side-of-desk activity. But neither is it an acute crisis, requiring immediate and obvious attention and resource.
Issues can get caught in a kind of no-man’s land, and issues management as a capability is not something most organisations go out of their way to think about. Launching an initiative to improve issues management is a worthy undertaking but not a guaranteed winner: there is a danger of being seen to create something that looks overengineered and unnecessary.
But there is a danger of inaction too. Have nothing in place to bridge the gap between BAU and crisis management and you could find that a lingering issue damages your organisation, or that a new trigger turns an unresolved issue into a crisis.
So how can you create an issues management capability without creating an industry?
What does an issues management capability look like?
The expansive view is that issues management as a capability helps you through the lifecycle of a reputation risk. It provides structure and process to help identify, track, prioritise, manage and resolve issues over time. It can involve smart horizon scanning, regularly reviewed risk matrices and a governance mechanism to ensure businesses, geographies and functions do their bit.
I am fully supportive of this – and have advocated it in books and other publications – but a fully-functioning issues management capability is without doubt a luxury. It costs time and money, neither of which is exactly abundant in the current corporate climate. It also feels complex, when what organisations really want to achieve in both issues and crisis management is to bring order and simplicity to complexity and confusion.
So let’s deconstruct the complexity.
For now, take away the element of issues management where emerging issues inside the organisation are identified, and assume there are controls and alert mechanisms in place that do this. Take away the external radar, and assume the organisation listens to stakeholders, engages with external developments and spots emerging trends. Strip away the issues architecture – the committees or structures that encourage reputation thinking across businesses, geographies and functions – and assume that BAU governance can perform the role.
What is left is the actual management of an issue. Put simply, what an organisation needs to do here is:
- formally recognise the issue as something that needs special attention
- put resource (a team or teams) in place to give it that attention
- have clarity of remit and reporting, so the teams are empowered but also know what decisions need to be escalated
- develop a clear understanding of the risk the issue presents if it remains unresolved or escalates
- develop a stakeholder map, objectives, a strategy and plan to manage the situation
- canvas opinions, consider options, make decisions, implement them and communicate
- hopefully make a difference, resolve the issue, possibly change the organisation for the better, and meet (or manage) stakeholder expectations
If this sounds a bit like crisis management, it is. The requirements are fundamentally the same; the difference is in the space and time that issues generally allow, but crises do not.
If you want some comfort that your organisation can manage issues, but you are not keen on the idea of creating protocols, standards etc, there are at least a couple of options.
First, you could merge issues and crisis management. This has been done successfully by some organisations, often using terminology such as ‘special situations’ or ‘impactful events’ for the new unified capability. With the tools and guidance being broadly the same (see above), issues management can be the lower rung of crisis management. The outcome of merging and simplifying the two could be a light touch but well-supported capability for managing adverse situations, which could be slow-burn or acute.
Some people will not like this suggestion, preferring to keep the crisis button pure. This is a reasonable stance to take. An alternative, therefore, would be to encourage the development of IM in your organisation by paring the process right down. As suggested above, decouple the management of issues from the spotting, prioritising etc and just develop a simple way of working that kicks in when required.
Issues management, like crisis management, can be agile, simple and effective. It can be intuitive and values-based rather than complex and rules-based. In fact, if it is not these things, it might be rejected. But don’t ignore issues management for fear of creating a monster; just keep it simple.