How to tell your “R”s from your “A”s, “C”s, and “I”s?

During a project planning session last week we were reviewing a vendor’s project plan with the team and looking at activities that would impact our own timeline and team-plan, and as usually happens during these discussion, a lot of questions and concerns came up that we needed to record in order to keep track of them and in some cases find answers and resolve them.

I had worked with the team before introducing them to a process where we sort out Constraints, Assumptions and Risks and identify Issues. During this session, however, we seemed to spend a lot of time going back and forth and trying to decide whether something was a Risk or an Issue, an Assumption or a Constraint. Those discussions are usually not very productive as participants argue about formalities and not working on content. So how can you help as a facilitator or project manager to cut through the confusion and ensure that the right items end up in the right buckets?

Well, first you have to be aware that the different concepts are actually interrelated: a risk that achieves a likelihood of 100% – i.e. it actually happens, an issue that defies resolution, an assumption that was never checked and suddenly proves false, and a constraint you never planned around, all end up developing into the same thing: a big, fat problem for your project.

However, besides the fact that they can all have the same result, the different types also have distinct differences, and these can be partially explained by what you need to do as a project manager to keep them under control and take the appropriate care of them.

  • Risks by definition carry an element of uncertainty – this means that with your risks you will not see a likelihood of 100% when you first identify them. You may be 99% sure that something will happen, but there is still a slim chance you could be wrong. So with risks you can do little else but record them, assess their impact and likelihood, formulate plans on how you may prevent or mitigate them and then you need to watch and wait. Events that come up during your team workshop and that may or may not happen are good candidates for your risk register.
  • Issues on the other hand always carry a likelihood of 100%. An issue is something that is happening right here, right now, and you must deal with it. It could be simply lack of information, the missing input of a decision maker, or someone preventing you from accomplishing an objective. Whatever it is, you will need to formulate a response strategy and implement it by a certain date or you will have a problem on your hands.
  • Assumptions are related to Issues in that they also require fairly immediate intervention, however, the intervention usually consists of nothing more than to find out whether an assumption is correct or not. If an assumption is correct it is simply marked as verified and can become a firm basis for planning. If it is false, well, then you may have an issue or even a risk on your hands and need to continue with the assumption on those paths.
  • Constraints finally are a form of verified assumption – they will alert you to certain obstacles for the project that you need to plan around. A constraint for a project could be the fact that you will need all personnel to have security clearances or that you cannot take a system down during certain specified times. Constraints are really not a problem, if you find out about them early enough to make them part of your plan. However, constraints that are caught too late will become issues or perhaps even problems and can derail a project.

If a project manager keeps these distinctions in mind the team will have an easy time separating out discussion points into components that are distinct, managed differently and eventually resolved in the appropriate manner.

And if you really cannot decide?

Don’t get too upset about it. If you need to, make something a risk and an issue and an assumption – it may feel like overkill, but chances are that you are really facing a big potential problem and this way you definitely won’t lose track of it and can attack it from all angles!