Is it a crisis? Is it an issue? – Or is it just a problem?
In the world of issue management, there are problems. There are issues. And there are crises.
Often organisations confuse the three.
Unlike beauty, issues and crises are not in the eye of the beholder. They are not subjective – they are states that have clear definitions that can be agreed upon by everyone involved.
Ensuring that everyone within an organisation understands the difference between a problem, an issue and a crisis is fundamental to dealing with each of these successfully.
A problem vs an issue
The first question to ask is – is it an issue? How do you know if something is an issue that needs managing or just a problem?
Tony Jaques, an industry veteran and a bit of a guru of ours when it comes to issues management, has the answer.
According to Tony, issues are public; there is no ‘right’ answer; they are ongoing; they are emotive, often based on opinion rather than fact, they are contentious and controversial, and attract media interest.
A problem, on the other hand, is technical; it is based on demonstrable fact, it has a recognized technical solution, the results of which can be measured; it is impersonal, and happens in private.
To illustrate the difference, Tony provides the following example:
A developer must design his building to optimize natural light on a site which is shaded much of the year.
This has all the characteristics of a problem.
The local residents association opposes the building saying it is ugly, out of keeping with its surroundings and not sympathetic to the environment.
This is an issue.
As a quick rule of thumb, a problem can be solved, but an issue has to be resolved.
So what’s the difference between an issue and a crisis?
Tony Jaques identifies the most significant difference as being time and choice. With an issue you have both; with a crisis you have neither.
Left unaddressed, an issue often becomes a crisis. The longer an issue goes on, options go down and costs/risks go up.
An issue exists when there is a gap between stakeholder expectations and an organisation’s policies, performance, products or public commitments.
A crisis arises when nothing is done to close that gap.
This happens when an organization remains in reactive mode. Often there can be analysis paralysis – an unwillingness to make decisions and take action – which allows the issue to fester.
Sometimes the legalities of an issue can lead to inaction. While legal considerations are key in managing an issue, Tony Jaques argues that an issue cannot be treated as if legal considerations override all others. He uses the analogy of acquitted in the court of law, convicted in the court of public opinion.
Ad hoc management can also tip an issue into a crisis. Everyone assumes someone else is handling it – and nobody takes responsibility.
And finally, not having a clear goal or objective in relation to an issue can lead to a lack of focus on action – which can precipitate a crisis.