Starting at Red

In class we talked about how project managers often use the red/amber/green method to signify if a project is running on track.  My company uses the thius same approach to track project work as well as many of our monthly KPI’s.

Most if not all projects typically start with a green indicator and will remain that way as long as the project completes on-time.  I read in interesting article called “Starting at Red” that suggests all projects should start with the color red.  The reasons cited in the article are as follows:

  1. When a project begins, 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”?
  2. Green at the beginning doesn’t work because 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”.
  3. 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.  Seems like an important distinction to make.
  4. “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.
  5. Starting at “Red”, there is no need to worry 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.
  6. 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 justify the change – which is much easier than delivering the bad news required to go from “Green” to “Amber” to “Red”.

The article summarizes by saying that 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 posed at the end of the article is for all PM’s to try this on their next project as see how it works.  Would you be willing to give it a try?

11 thoughts on “Starting at Red

  1. That is an interesting thought, and goes along the same lines of the problem we talked in class. Starting in “red” will help focus the team on the risk management portion of the project right from the get go. This could help eliminate the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentality. It is also goes along the Agile project management thinking. Where the team members have to voice their concerns about potential obstacles on the daily basis. That is a great idea.

  2. I really liked the sense of urgency this may instill. It’s kind of like you start every project as the underdog and have to work your way up. My only question/concern – Do you think project teams would become less sensitized to the Red status? If project is red too late in the game or if it falls back into red will it create the same urgency when needed later since everyone is used to projects starting in red?

  3. It makes sense. The second point in your article definitely made me chuckle a bit. Its widley known to be true that you cant really just go full fledged into any project when consolidating operations. Capital, Time, and Organization is key, but all done through proper planning. I don’t think Green should be entirely relevent, because in generally accepted manufacturing standards, its not fallable until the line is really close to the finish.

    There can always be cases of project going green midway into production, and then a natural/unexpected/unintended red flag comes up and shoves you right back into the red. Then you have a few angry clients. Just take a look at Boeing and their Dreamliner deliveries. They pissed off half the world’s airlines. HA!

    Everything, in my honest opinion, is red, until it is Amber.

    Green if and when everything is in “FINAL INSPECTION” stages.


  4. Very interesting! I never thought of it that way but it’s true, we can’t really mark something as “Green” if it technically hasn’t started. I usually use green to highlight the tasks that I should be doing next but sometimes other things come up that need to be worked on so i might not get to the “Green” tasks right away. Seeing from the articles point of view maybe I should start highlighting them red until I have actually started the task?

  5. While never having heard of this method before, I can fully see why it is useful in organizations who constantly delve into new projects. At my current job, I am a part of the Operations department in which my daily work constantly aids, stagnates, or hinders a certain project’s success. Having a visual accountability of the progress of a project would not only motivate me, but also help my time efficiency of completing that project. It is easy to get distracted by other issues that come your way in one 8 hour workday. By having a type of accountability one can see would not only allow one to able better focus on changing the status of their project, but also give them a sense of concrete pride and success upon moving the status of their project from one tier to another.

  6. This is a actually an interesting article. I had a professor who used the same mentality and stated the first day of class, “You all have a 0!” At the time, I understood the concept but I was not sure where he had gotten the idea. He used to tell the class maintain the grade you think you deserve. This allowed the class to really work hard for the 100% they believed they deserved. I think starting on red allows for constant motivation and accountability. It allows for people to stay focused on the goal ahead and leaves little room for error.

  7. I’ve never heard of this methodology of using “red, amber, green”, but I see its an easy way to signify how the project is running. I feel whichever presentation is used “red->green” or “green->red” the members of the group should understand what the colors signify. I prefer the “red->green” scenario presented in your post. I feel it gives a sense of urgency to the project members because nothing has been accomplished or in the finished stage.

  8. This is the first time i have heard of this method, but i like the reasoning behind it. I definitely agree with starting at the color red, this way the people working on the project would not feel like they don’t need to work hard from the very beginning. If they start at red they will feel like they need to dig themselves out of the danger zone and establish their hard working habits.

  9. Great post, Michele. This idea of starting in the red is definitely a different way to look at projects. You make some great points but the one that stands out to me the most is when you state that “Starting at Red, there is no need to worry because a Red status is the norm.” It almost feels like this idea turns the biggest fear into an almost positive motivation. The idea that your workers will work hard to make that turn green versus working hard and watching the green light turn red, which might cause the team to start to give up and lose morale.

  10. Great Post! This is exactly what we do in our department. I personally feel like red is the standard color for not being done! Green is known for always ready to go and just a sign of relief, and yellow is just the middle. In our projects at my work, we have to deal with big shipping sheets to check if the deliveries got there on time or not and we use green if it has reached its destination, we use red if has not gotten there and of course yellow if its on its way. Watching Project Managers use this and check their charts and gives them more of a easy read and not something to look up.

    There is a no difference when you use those colors in real life situations and its great talking about them as well.

  11. Your post was really interesting! I never thought about it. People tend to get things done as quickly as possible, and not to think about the future outcomes. That is why, my team and I try to first plan much more ahead than starting to do it. This way, we are more sure that the project will be successful. Of course there will be difficulties while you are trying to achieve something, but it will help out to learn those mistakes for the next project!

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