Risk & Issue Management – The Key Differences & How They Work Together

Unfortunately, projects aren’t delivered in a vacuum. Throw factors such as competing business priorities, technical errors, and even basic human error into the mix and projects are filled with things that can go wrong.

Risk & Issue Management - The Key Differences & How They Work Together

Fortunately, every project management framework will have two sure-fire ways to overcome these challenges: Risk Management & Issue Management. Whilst these terms often get used interchangeably, they aren’t the same thing at all.

In this article, we’ll look at the key differences between Risk and Issue Management and how they come together to avoid project disaster!

Risk Management Explained

Let’s start by defining a risk. The PMI definition states that risk is “an uncertain event or condition that, if it occurs, has a positive or negative effect on a project’s objectives.”

In the vast majority of instances, projects focus their efforts on tracking negative risks to avoid any unwanted impacts in the future.

Risk Management focuses on reducing and eliminating the uncertainty around whether a risk event will actually happen. Project frameworks will always include a Risk Management process designed to help project managers do just that.

Here’s an example of a framework you can use to manage risks:

  • Step 1 – Initiate – To start the process, understand your project’s aspects are at risk. Specifically, the objectives, deliverables, and tasks.
  • Step 2 – Identify – Understand the risks presented to those aspects, recording them in a way that’s easy to understand for all project team members and stakeholders. This is commonly done in an action log.
  • Step 3 – Assess – Assess each one; in turn, consider the likelihood of a risk occurring and its potential impact. This will allow you to categorize the highest priority risks too.
  • Step 4 – Plan Responses – Think about what measures you could implement to reduce or eliminate each risk. This could also link into other project controls such as resourcing or budget.
  • Step 5 – Implement Responses – Implement the responses you’ve planned. Monitor their effectiveness at either mitigating or eliminating the risk event.

Issue Management Explained

Unlike risks, issues affect your project right now rather than potentially happening in the future! As with risks, the common issues which we track in a project are almost always negative and, in most cases, will be something a project manager can’t solve on their own.

In much the same way as with risks, you can implement many different frameworks to eliminate issues. Here’s an example:

  • Step 1 – Identify – If there’s a live problem occurring within your project, it should be fairly easy to identify. But, don’t get caught out – be sure to not only understand the root cause of the problem, not just its symptoms.
  • Step 2 – Evaluate – Evaluate the effect it is having on your project and who can help fix it. This impact is again likely to be concerning your standard project controls regarding your timescales, quality, or costs.
  • Step 3 – Action – Here, you need to activate your response. Often, as the project manager, you can’t solve an issue alone, so escalate the issue to a higher authority for resolution.
  • Step 4 – Monitor – Monitor the effectiveness of the action you have taken. Ensure if the action is not working, you escalate to someone new and try a new solution – the longer an issue continues, the higher impact it will have!

Risk Management vs. Issue Management – The Similarities

You may have already guessed from this article that whilst risks and issues are different, they are very much related.

Most issues start their lives as risks with project managers and other stakeholders identifying the possibility of a risk event much before it happened. Unfortunately, no matter how good your risk management approach is, issues can still occur in certain instances.

This relationship isn’t just one-way though, sometimes issues occurring can actually present a whole new set of risks to your project. Let’s finish up with a non-project example to explain the link between risks and issues.

Real-Life Example – Risks & Issues – How They Work Together

Think about the home you live in. One of the major risk events that can happen to your home is fire. Now we’re all aware of this risk, and we take measures to reduce its likelihood. These include installing fire alarms or buying safety rated cooking equipment.

Despite trying to mitigate the risk, house fires still happen. When they do, that’s when it becomes an issue. You cannot solve this issue on your own, so you escalate it to the fire brigade, hoping they can help you put the fire out!

As the fire (issue) spreads in your home, your neighbor’s house is now in danger of catching fire too. They now have a risk of their own that they need to manage before it turns into an issue!

To Wrap Up…

That’s it for our look at Risk and Issue Management. Although in themselves, risk and issues are very different, they are inherently linked. By implementing robust processes, you can reduce the effect they both have on your projects and programs moving forward!


James Elliott is a Project Manager, Writer, and Trainer from London. When not working to deliver projects, James writes on a variety of business topics and delivers online project management training. You can check out James’ work on his website or by connecting on LinkedIn.

Risk & Issue Management – The Key Differences & How They Work Together

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