This blog was originally posted on Trevor K Nelson.

One of the more common questions seen lately in online project management discussions focuses on the difference between a Risk and an Issue.

The question generally comes from newer Project Managers, and usually asks “what’s the difference?”


The simple explanation is that a ‘risk’ is something that MAY happen, an Issue is something that HAS happened.

Risk is defined as ‘uncertainty’. It’s an event, an outcome, an impact, where the likelihood of it happening is ‘uncertain’. It may happen, it may not. If we choose to do this, that may occur. And this is where we play the ‘what-if’ game. What-if this happens, what-if that happens? Due to this uncertainty, we do risk identification, risk response planning, and risk management. We’re planning ahead because ‘we don’t know’ what’s going to happen. So we prepare.

An issue on the other hand is something that HAS happened, or WILL happen. It’s not uncertain. It has to be dealt with. How that’s done is dependent on the situation, but it must be handled. An issue can be both an identified risk that has been realized, or it can be an unforeseen risk. How it got here is irrelevant (other than for lessons learned). All that matters now is that it be managed.

So risk = might happen, Issue = has happened/will happen.

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