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?

Culture is Critical

Understanding organizational culture is a critical component to the success of a project.  I was able to see this first-hand during a large acquisition project I worked on recently.  We acquired one of our competitors who employed over 4,500 employees.   The goal of the project was to successfully integrate our two companies together and eventually operate both businesses in a uniform way.  Both companies delivered a similar service, but the organizational structures and company cultures were very different.  We knew this would pose a challenge to the project as we set out to combine the two together.

During our last class, we discussed the key dimensions that define an organization’s culture.  These dimensions indicate risk tolerance, team focus or communication style amongst other attributes.  During the acquisition integration project we utilized similar key dimensions to try and understand what made our cultures so different.  By understanding the culture differences we believed we could better manage the large-scale changes.  The process involved employees from both companies completing a culture survey and assessing their own organizational culture based on the key dimensions.  We then asked the same group to complete the survey again and indicate what their perceptions are of the other company culture.  The results of the effort are shown below:

Capture culture

The solid yellow line is the acquired company (PM) assessment of their culture.  The dotted yellow is the purchasing company (NEC) perception of PM’s culture.  The blue lines are the same assessment for NEC.  We discovered the employees from both companies had a very good idea about the culture of the other company, and we could easily identify where our cultures differed from one another.  This information became central to the project and assisted us in managing the integration.  We were careful not to make drastic changes in areas where our cultures differed, and move quickly to integrate in areas where our companies were aligned.  An additional benefit was the positive view the employees from the acquired company had about NEC.  The interest we showed in learning about their culture and applying what we learned built trust between the two groups.  This trust became the platform to support all future integration efforts.  Ultimately, by paying attention to organizational culture we were able to complete the integration project on-time and integration synergies were achieved earlier than planned.

The concept of organizational culture and the effect it has on project management is supported by a recent article I read from on the website.  Click here to link to the article.  The article indicates the most valuable training a project manager can have is organizational culture training.   The author recommends culture based training for project managers and project participants.  The training material should enable project teams to identify, assess and address issues related to organization’s work culture.  The efforts will be most successful when lessons learned from previous projects at a company can be shared and leveraged to ensure future projects are equally successful.

Have you ever worked with an organizational culture survey as part of a project?  Did you find it helpful?


Nair, J. (2014, March 27). Organizational Culture: Essential Training for PMs. <i></i>. Retrieved July 5, 2014, from–Essential-Training-for-PMs