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We All Have Issues

Yes, it’s true.

If you’re an association of any kind, chances are extremely high that at least one of your committees or working groups has a list of open items, or issues. It could be items that the group hasn’t yet reached consensus on, parking lot items that the group hasn’t yet had a chance to discuss, problems that have been identified but not yet resolved, or even an inventory of decisions it has already made.

No matter what the subject matter, issues need to be carefully managed. Maintaining an issues list can help set meeting agendas and identify action items, and help a working group get a solid grasp on how much work still remains to be done. Logging each item as it is identified ensures that nothing slips through the cracks. Issues lists also serve as a record of decisions already made, thus helping to ensure that groups avoid the trap of re-opening the same discussions again and again.

So I’ve convinced you that your group needs an issues list. Now what? How do you go about implementing an issues list? In many cases a spreadsheet is sufficient, particularly if the list is small and there is little disagreement. If the subject is complex – such as the creation or maintenance of a specification or standard – it’s likely that the list will be as well. Using a more sophisticated issues tracking system will allow the team to not only record the issue but also capture discussions and final resolutions, as well as note various workflow states and generate reports.

External review adds another layer of complexity. Substantive comments mean more issues to deal with, oftentimes with the additional burden of having to report the results back to the submitters. An issue tracking system is invaluable in these circumstances. Whether you expose portions of the system itself – or simply make reports available – to your constituency, the group members can concentrate on the issues at hand rather than spending time updating spreadsheets or writing reports.

Ready to get started? There are dozens of templates available online for Microsoft Excel, and even a few for Microsoft Access. There’s also dozens of issue tracking systems out there – some free, some not. When deciding which one is right for your group, think ahead to future requirements - and be sure to ask for members’ input. Chances are they’re already using a particular approach – good or bad – elsewhere. Remember that sophisticated shouldn’t mean “hard to use,” and  spending some quality time with set-up and configuration will prove to be well worth the effort. Make sure your tools are user-friendly and complement systems already in use for other committee activities. The more disparate tools and systems you expect members to use, the less likely they’ll embrace any of them. And finally, once you’ve made your choice, don’t forget training. No matter how good the spreadsheet or system, it’s useless if the members don’t understand how to use it.

Already have something in place? Post your favorite (or least favorite) method or tool for tracking issues in the comments below.

Comments

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    Terry Coatta / January 18

    I would recommend some sort of web-based bug-tracking system so that people are able to access it from any location. There are a number of these out there — primarily intended to support defect tracking in software development (e.g. http://www.bugtrack.net/) but they are often very useful as general issue tracking systems.

    The other thing I think that you want to look for is some sort of notification system; e.g. sending out email to relevant individuals when something about an issue changes (updated description, change in status, comment from someone). Most committee members aren’t going to bother checking into the system on a regular basis, so you need something that let’s them know when something of interest to them has happened.

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    John Keith / January 18

    Hi Mary,

    The parking lot and issue capture is something we’re definitely adding, as an extension of the notes, AIs, and decisions. We think it’s important to have access to these things before, during, and after the meeting in which they’re being generated or acted upon.

    I would be very interested in hearing how folks manage these lists outside the meeting context. This would go a long ways toward helping us understand useful integration with other systems of record.

    – John

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    Annie Gallagher / January 20

    I think it’s good to keep track of unresolved issues. Additionally, you want to make sure that your work supports your strategic plan, so you need to wrap those issues list into organizational strategy and goals. I would also recommend that the tracking document include what I call the “Triple As”: articulation, assignment, and accountability. This allows you to articulate what the issue is and what it means to your group. Then you can wrap a goal around it for the committee and identify the desired end state. It also enables you to assign people to make sure there’s progress toward the goal/issue, and make sure people are accountable for completing the assignments. I love the idea of having an issues list, especially if there is a little more meat around it by using a “Triple A” approach.

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