Yellow is the new Green

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It’s time to stop declaring the status of your projects, programs or features as Green!

This post is inspired by conversations with and presentations from Maxwell Keeler, VP product development at The Motley Fool during Agile 2010.

Max highlighted that after a few short weeks of Red/Yellow/Green meetings (or Red/Amber/Green – RAG in the UK), team status reporting rapidly morphed into “Green” meetings.

This pitfall cascades from management into teams themselves. If you report things as “green” to your management, those people working for you may have difficulty telling you that things aren’t green.

Here’s how RYG status should be treated…

Red – something is wrong, we’ll fail without intervention.

Yellow – there are some troubles/concerns that need to be managed through.

Green – everything’s groovy baby.

Here’s some common but poor reactions to these reports…

Red – Escalate! Drop everything, throw all resources at this unless there’s a higher priority fire elsewhere. Put the project and team in the spotlight until the fire is out.

Yellow – Escalate! Drop everything, throw all resources at this unless there are higher priority fires elsewhere. Put the project and team in the spotlight until the fire is out.

Green – everything’s groovy baby.

I was once even warned off saying “too much” on status calls in case sharing my concerns would create additional work for me!  I ignored the (now ex-colleague’s) advice – I aim to set the tone for my teams and organization myself.

Because of the fear of kneejerk responses, here’s what behavior is driven on the reporting side…

Red – my project is in failure mode, I should have raised issues sooner but I can’t hide from the problems any more.

Yellow – my project is on the brink of failure mode but somebody else has spotted it and called me out so i can’t hide from it any more.

Green – I’m busy enough without any extra scrutiny. If there are problems, they’re staying hidden as long as I can keep a lid on them.

It’s not surprising that “Yellow” generates a strong leadership reaction in these circumstances – it’s a vicious circle.

It’s time we called everything yellow unless there really are no problems. Colors are the “elephant test” for whether your project will succeed. Unless everything’s groovy, go for Yellow but where possible, ask for (or provide) real information and engage stakeholders to see the actual status or projects, not just their colorful abstraction.