“That person has issues” or “that company has issues” are usually viewed as negative statements. The phrasing is meant to carry a warning, but with deliberate obscureness as to what the exact problem is. At the extreme, it could mean another deliberately vague term that implies the existence of some untoward behavior, “sketchy.”
To a professional in a function that can impact brand and reputation, the term “issue” is a core part of daily work that is essential to value creation. To companies, issues can cover the full range from deep philosophical questions about the purpose of the organization, to the need for tactical lobbying on a pending piece of legislation.
In the last installment of this series on Pillars of Radical Influence we covered the Situational Awareness pillar. It is a critical predecessor to the Issue Management pillar because it includes the ability to discover emerging issues along with related information that helps understand in depth. Seamlessly, those issue that are sufficiently impactful are subsequently entrained in the Issue Management process of the corporation.
Issues come in various shapes and sizes, and may not be cleanly categorized into a single type. Some categories might be:
A. Strategic issues that require early recognition and sound judgement in responding to external threats and opportunities. These issues can potentially require changes in business strategy.
Take, for example, climate change, a slow-moving development, but with huge consequences. It is notable how Exxon is accused of actively engaging in climate change denial, failing on the recognition of a critical issue that strikes at the heart of their business. Whereas Royal Dutch Shell’s positioning for a low-carbon future demonstrates a better level of situational awareness and strategic flexibility. For oil and coal producers, the move to low carbon emissions is not simply a strategic issue, but potentially an existential one.
Corporate social responsibility topics could fall in this category if the issue has large enough business impact.
B. Regulatory and Legislative issues are potential and proposed regulations and bills before legislators. An emerging issue might be a topic that a special interest group is advocating for but has not yet formulated a bill for introduction to the legislature. Examples might be proposed taxes, licensing or reporting requirements, changes to government policy that can impact markets, or competitors trying to create potentially unfair advantages for themselves.
C. General Business issues could touch any part of your organization’s day-to-day operations. It could be concerns from community members who are adjacent to your facilities, competitors claiming unfair competition, or requirements for new technologies.
D. Project-based issues are unique to large public infrastructure investments and similar large-scale settings with large stakeholder groups. To build a significant road, railway, mine, solar installation, or wind farm many stakeholders must be kept informed as well as contracted with for rights-or-way, or purchase of land. The issues can focus on project design, construction noise or disruption, timing, or compensation and many more. Since infrastructure projects can affect a large population, take multiple years to finance, build, and operate for many decades, they have unique financial dynamics and concerns for all involved.
Large-scale projects can require a significant investment in stakeholder engagement that require a lot of boots on the ground in the community to listen about concerns, explain plans, build support, and enable the project to proceed. This is issue management up close. The process requires a sound stakeholder engagement system to capture and report on the details of the interactions.
E. Reputation issues could potentially be as clean as simply not being well-understood by those who observe the company. However, it is usually more complicated than that. Often, there is some gap between a company’s behavior and a stakeholder’s expectations that are the heart of the issue. Active efforts to manage what a brand stands for is usually aimed at dealing with some aspect of issues related to company reputation.
F. Government relations issues occur across the interface between a company and any governments they conduct business with. For many companies, this is essentially a sales function.
Professionally, any brand manager, lobbyist, or communicator must understand the issues that their company faces. It is common for someone who recently switched jobs to say that “the transition was easy because they already knew the issues.” Alternatively, someone relatively new after a switch might claim to be “still getting to know the issues”.
Organizations need a process to manage their issue portfolio. Without a process, the organization cannot be adequately responsive, or worse, underestimate a significant risk to the business.
Steps in the issue management process usually include:
1. Identify the issue. This step is fed by another pillar, Situational Awareness, covered in the prior installment of this series.
2. Understand stakeholder perspective. Part of mastering the issues is understanding the stakeholders whose interests fuel the voices that are expressing their perspective. Stakeholder analysis help identify the critical subset of stakeholders that need extra attention. Here is a simple way to categorize stakeholders into four categories so that you spend the most resources on the most important ones.
Ongoing stakeholder engagement can be as simple as regular update communications or may involve direct one-on-one interaction and negotiation.
3. Assess business and strategic impact.
Determine the value impact on the company. This will be covered in more detail in the next installment of this series on the pillars of Radical Influence— Value Management. Taking this step ends with a conclusion on whether the issue’s impact is a “boulder” (huge) or just “gravel” (minor) so that appropriate action can be taken.
Some organizations use the PESTEL framework to evaluate an issue from multiple lenses: Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Environmental, and Legal perspectives.
Further, estimating the potential impact of the issue on your specific business may take a few moments, but by making some simplifying assumptions, practitioners can determine the relative size and nature of the impact.
Lastly, in assessing the worth of pursuing an issue, it makes sense to ask a practical question, “to what degree can your organization influence the expected outcome?” For some issues, you might need to hang up your hat right away if you have no leverage, sympathy, or pull.
4. Develop alternative responses.
All good planning involves the generation and evaluation of different responses and approaches. Research shows that the entertainment of alternatives is associated with more positive results. Sometimes, the best position to take on an issue is to not take a position. But that is more a rarity than a default response if you want to stand for something.
5. Engage internal stakeholders and align.
To ensure that the organization will respond wholeheartedly, it is essential to engage and gain commitment to action from relevant line managers and senior leaders. This step is where another Pillar of Radical Influence, Business Partnership, comes to life. The working relationships that are the result of active attention to partnership. Along with the necessary knowledge of how different parts of the business operate, productive and frank conversations can happen. Without those conversations, there would be little alignment across the organization and a lot of, standing around and vibrating instead of concerted action.
6. Implement response.
Next comes the “get it done” part. For complex response programs, you may want to appoint an internal position to function as a program management office (PMO), or hire the equivalent via your agency or consultant advisors.
7.Monitor results and improve.
Most organization’s skip this step, but the top performers do not. They look forward to it, since it is a proven path to excellence. Whether during the course of the program, or an annual review of how well your issue management process is working for your organization, taking the time for a formal “review and commit to improve” cycle will produce value that will compound over time.
By taking all of the types of issues and all the steps in the issue management process described above, you can now imagine several levels of maturity for the overall issue management capability as shown in this table.
|1.Traditional||Identify and monitor issues||• Issue lists for separate functions, or no formal lists at all |
• Limited to critical issues
|• Isolated in the influence function |
|2. Aware||Identify, monitor, and act on issues||• Shared issue lists, with some preliminary ratings on key dimensions for comparison |
• Progress reporting on issue action plans
• Covers critical and strategic issues
|• Active oversight of implementation for only the most critical issues |
• Limited stakeholder and alternative analysis
• No dedicated staff support
|3. Practicing||Identify, assess, evaluate alternatives, engage internal stakeholders, and monitor implementation||• Shared issue lists with time frames or stages |
• Formal stakeholder engagement activities
• Formal link to horizon monitoring or situational awareness processes
|• Influence function connects opportunistically with strategic planning|
• Stakeholder analysis occurs regularly
• Alternatives are considered in most cases
• Risk rating system in place
• Limited staff support
• Ability to be proactive
|4. Radical||• Early identification |
• Comprehensive system from early identification to action management, integrated with Situational Awareness and Value Management
|• Shared issue lists with time frames and estimated relative value impact across the portfolio of important issues||• Integrated with strategic planning, including evaluation of issue-driven scenarios, resulting in strong strategic flexibility|
• Identifiable staff exist to support the issue management process with mixture of policy analysis and project management skills
Note that at the low end, there is little process present and at the high end, the process is so integrated, you could call it a systemic organizational capability.
Is there a right way and a wrong way to build an issue management capability in your organization? Yes, there sure is. You are headed down the wrong path if you:
- Make everyone participate, whether they have active issues or not
- Do not make everyone aware of what issues you are working on so that they are ready if you have to call them into action
- Use only internal resources and fail to import new ideas
- Rush through the planning tasks to check the boxes, rather than deliberately think it through
- Do everything in group workshops “so that we can all hear what is being said”
You are headed on the right path if you:
- Are flexible on how you deploy it
- Let the organization choose to participate
- Cover all the important issues
- Avoid forcing the process down people’s throats
- Avoid overly detailed or non-material issues
- Divide up the work for issue assessment and alternative response development to appropriate teams with the needed skills
- Adjust the process for different parts of the organization – more formal in influence functions and less formal for other functions unless the organization is facing material issues
- Introduce more structure and process for reporting only at the time it has meaning, for example, when a big issue hits the organization
- Build in increments rather than all at once, developing an improvement plan each year
You will definitely face some tough issues, where the path forward is not immediately clear, but have faith in the process. You and your organization will work it through. And yes, it is true that occasionally, “some issues have issues”! Until you apply the full and strategic issue management process, that is.