Project Practitioners > What do those stoplights really mean?

What do those stoplights really mean?

By Kent McDonald

Within the last year, I have worked in two separate organizations where the expectations for status reporting were revised and I was involved in developing tools to support or communicate the different expectations.  What I found in both cases, with fairly different organizational cultures, was a hang up amongst many project managers about the criteria used for identifying a project, or some aspect of a project as green, yellow, or red.  My initial thought on that question, and the seemingly endless discussions that followed, was that people should just trust their gut and not get hung up on exact definitions of the stoplight colors. 

Upon further reflection, I realized there could be some value in having a consistent understanding about what green, yellow, and red mean, but without precise criteria on how to determine one color versus another.  Let’s start with why the stoplight metaphor is used so frequently.  Stoplights are a fairly universal mechanism for governing traffic flow where:

  • Green means “go” or “good”
  • Red means “stop” or “bad”
  • Yellow either means “caution” or “speed up so that you don’t get stuck at the red.”

Perhaps the trouble is that people equate stop lights with regulations or governance (ie “stop, or else you will get a ticket, or get hit”) so the premise that the stop light colors are being used to communicate status rather than govern actions may be a little foreign.

Or perhaps it could reflect the culture of many organizations where it is perceived as bad to identify problems or difficulties. People go out of their way to avoid sharing bad news, not realizing that bad news is not like fine wine and does not get better with age.  Better to share bad news right when you find out about it rather than let the news sit and fester and invite the additional questions of “why didn’t you tell me about this right when you knew it?”

Once you get past the fear of reporting bad news, the stoplight approach can be a useful mechanism to get people’s attention and ask for the help you need.  Condition your stakeholders to know that when an item shows up on one of your status reports, they should read more carefully and see where they can help.  Tell everyone on your status report definition that you are using the following definitions (or something similar):

  • Green: “All is good” - things are preceding according plans and/or expectations.  The team is projecting that it will meet its objectives.
  • Yellow: “We have some problems, but we have some plans.” - there have been some unexpected deviation from plans or expectations that may cause us to miss our goal, but we have a plan in place to get back on track.
  • Red: “We have some problems, and no workable plans” – things have come up that will cause us to miss our goal and we do not currently have plans to address them.  We need help!

Use the definitions I suggest above, and don’t be afraid to tell the truth about project status as soon as you know it.  You will thank yourself in the long run.  If your culture is such where telling the truth to a wide audience is discouraged because it is not “politically correct” to admit that you are having problems, tell your project sponsor that you prefer to be honest with your status reports and let them know that they will have the opportunity to see the status report before you distribute it to a broader audience, but you are not going to sugar coat the status.  If they balk, make sure that you are least filling them in on the actual status, even if it is not broadly communicated.

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