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Starting at Red

Anybody who has worked on projects for any length of time is familiar with this scenario: The project starts with lots of enthusiasm, there are no real issues yet and plenty of time available. Status reports are all “Green”. All is well in Project Management Land.

Then issues start to kick in and aren’t getting resolved fast enough. Still the status is “Green” because it wouldn’t look good to raise it to “Amber”, and anyway there’s still plenty of time to sort everything out and get back on track.

Eventually it’s clear that the project is not going to be able to meet the deadlines and the PM grudgingly pushes the status to “Red” where it remains…

I haven’t analysed it to death, but here’s a suggestion. Start at “Red”. Sounds crazy? Bear with me…

Code Red

When a project starts, the team is as far from delivering anything as it will ever be. Sounds pretty much like a “Red” scenario to me. What if the project remained at “Red” until the PM could justify downgrading it to “Amber” – based on progress achieved, and then eventually (hopefully) “Green”?

In theory it shouldn’t matter, but in reality it does. Why?

Why Green doesn’t work

The reason that “Green” is bad is that it means two different things.

At the start of the project we have no idea if we’re going to achieve our goals so saying the project is “Green” really means “we haven’t yet found a reason why we won’t deliver”.

If the project is still “Green” a week before delivery then – you would hope – that it now means “we will definitely deliver”.

If a project starts at “Green” and remains “Green” all the way through, at what point does it go from being “we haven’t yet found a reason why we won’t deliver” to “we will definitely deliver”? At some point it will have changed, but this is not recorded by a change of project status. Strange. Seems like an important distinction to make.

Keeping the PM honest

“Green” is a problem because reality doesn’t work like a textbook. It is usually very hard for the PM to change the project’s status. It can cause panic within a Project Board – and lots of extra work and unwanted attention for the PM. So PMs, particularly inexperienced ones, are very reluctant to change status.

Starting at “Red”, on the other hand, there is no need to worry about scaring the Project Board because a “Red” status is the norm. This clarifies that “Green” only means “we will deliver”, and no project can go to “Green” until it is clear that the progress made justifies the change of status.

The PM will naturally be keen to find reasons to change the status to “Amber” and then “Green”, but this will require delivering good news, and having positive conversations with the Project Board to justify the change – which is much easier than delivering the bad news required to go from “Green” to “Amber” to “Red”.

Empowering the Project Board

When a project is “Green” by default, there is very little for the Project Board to do until the moment when the PM is forced to acknowledge a problem and change the status. Starting at “Red” changes the dynamic. The emphasis of the board can now be on questioning what can be done, and how the board can assist, to go to “Amber” and then “Green” before there is a problem, rather than waiting until it is too late.

The Project Board needs to be vigilant about questioning any change of status by the PM to ensure it doesn’t go “Green” before it is justified. But again, the conversations would be about positive changes, rather than negative ones. A status of “Red” allows the board to focus on the things that are critical to success while there is still time to address the problems.

Creating a questioning environment

When a project is coasting at “Green” it is easy to lose track of what is critical to success and focus on working through a given task list, putting off difficult issues because there is time to resolve them later (we’re “Green” after all).

Starting at “Red” makes it easier to focus the team on the critical activities required to go to “Green”. Everything else is secondary. This is the kind of project environment that is usually only created when there is a serious problem. Why wait until then? Start with the attitude that the project is going to fail unless you take immediate action – because it is!

The challenge

On my next project I’m going to start all my reports with a status of “Red”, and refuse to change status until I have a good reason. When I’m asked why, I’ll carefully explain why it’s better this way. My challenge to all you PMs and BAs out there is this: Do the same. Try it out on your next project, and let me know how it works out.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

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