The Many Faces of “Issue Management”

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Ever since the book by W. Howard Chase in 1984, titled Issue Management, Origins of the Future organizations have initiated all manner of issue management processes and capabilities.

Today, the Issue Management Council keeps Howard Chase’s intent alive and brings practitioners together to share insights. The Council defines an issue “as a gap between your (organization’s) actions and stakeholder expectations.” It further states that issue management is “the process to close that gap.” (https://issuemanagement.org/learnmore/clarification-of-terms/)

Over the last two decades, I have noticed a steady increase in references to this discipline, with a dramatic pop in the last five years. One driver is the emergence of more sophisticated technologies for tracking proposed legislation and regulations. Since new public policies represent constraints to company operations, they were viewed as “issues” that need attention. The information technology helps the organization “manage the issues,” conceptually. Popular usage soared.

Interestingly, the phrases managing the issues, or that their company practices issue management, they can be describing a hugely broad spectrum of behavior.

Why does this variation matter? Well, lack of clarity can lead to lack of common expectations, which can lead to confusion and dropped balls. This can prevent the development of effective corporate strategies, lead to public miscues and conflicting behavior, or slow decision making in times that demand responsiveness.

Here are some “definitions” I often hear that issue management is a:

  • Function, because we have a department with that name
  • Process, because everyone who works on issues does so as a secondary role on top of their existing job responsibilities
  • Risk management technique because risks are rolled up and summarized for the Board
  • Center of Excellence
  • Driver of stakeholder engagement programs
  • Strategy development tool so that issues are built into the long-range planning process
  • Portfolio manager with a radar screen watching the things that could hurt or help the company and orchestrating responses to each
  • Way to set priorities, by ranking issues in terms of the magnitude of their damage or benefit to the organization
  • Organizational discipline that shores up the ability to execute a business strategy
  • Cultural attribute of a highly organized company that has good “eyes and ears” for the social, legal, ethical, and regulatory environment it operates within

Issue Management Organizations that are leaders at issue management exhibit many of the above attributes. They view issue management as an integrated system that gives the company the ability to manage issues on the horizon, as well as flare ups in a reliable and competent fashion.

The lesson is to develop a robust concept of what issue management should be for your organization based on how it adds strategic value. Then, deploy that concept widely and completely. Evaluate how the system works and fine tune it annually.

Some signals that issue management might not be well-deployed in an organization include:

  • People say that “all we do here is fight fires”
  • A pattern I call Extrapolated Deployment, where since the organization has one or two solid examples of good issue management in the organization, everyone claims “we do it company-wide.”
  • Executives don’t touch the process since it is driven by a dedicated department
  • Equating issue “management” with program execution, and ignoring the discovery, evaluation, and strategic response elements that precede it

If thoughtfully deployed, issue management can be:

  • Very strategic, dealing with long term and potentially existential questions
  • A way to consider and weigh various strategic responses
  • Involve leaders, so they learn the dynamics, constraints, and options the company can choose from
  • Iterative, so it matures over time
  • A way to crystallize thinking, produce executive alignment, and mobilize concerted action at scale

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