Red, Yellow, Green. A Guide for Project Managers

Essay, 2015

8 Pages

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Many organizations use a RED, YELLOW, GREEN rating system to provide senior management with an easy to read assessment on the status of a large number of projects, quickly. Green is the status given to a project that is running within budget, timeline, or expectation. Yellow is the status given when some aspect of the project is at risk, or some aspect of the project deserves special attention. Red is the status given when some aspect of the project has fallen dramatically behind, has encountered a major setback, is over budget, or outside the expected parameters.

Left to run themselves, projects don’t get very far. However, neither do they have someone there to report that they are behind anyway, so maybe ignorance is bliss. Assigning a dedicated project manager helps increase the likelihood of a successful project. Notice how I don’t say that assigning a PM guarantees success. You may have been assigned to a project that is just getting underway. You may be stepping in to a project that is in flight.

Projects go Red. If they didn’t, the organization wouldn’t need you, now would they?

You have two jobs. Job#1 - You are there to keep the project from going Red, to monitor, to anticipate, to plan and prepare. Job#2 - You are there because the simple truth is that the project can go Red all by itself. Projects can go Red for any number of reasons. Sometimes the project will go Red and you will have no warning or notice. The PM is on the scene so that when a project does go Red there is someone close to the project, someone with leadership and drive can step in at get the project back on course, and this is where you can really show off.

Zones of Control


Zone 1 is what I’m going to call those aspects over which the PM has direct control. These are the things like ensuring that the Requirements document gets approved BEFORE development work begin, or ensuring that the Project Charter is approved BEFORE spending the company’s money. If the project goes Red due to something directly in your control, own it. That’s all you. You better have a good answer for this one. You should have expected this.


Zone 2 is what I’m going to call those between Zone 1 and Zone 3 (no kidding?). These are the

issues you are responsible for simply because you are the Project Manager. These are the issues that lay somewhere between “That’s All You Buddy”, and “There’s No Way You Could See This Coming”. These are things like maybe you planned for X,Y,and Z, but encountered W instead. These are the things you saw coming and were able to warn senior management ahead of time by voluntarily changing your status to Yellow ahead of time. I see it coming, and yup, there it is. This is a bit further out of your direct control but still within your field of view. Things you might be able to anticipate, and might be able to control through mitigation and planning. These are the things you get paid to find and eliminate.


Zone 3 as you can see gets further out from the direct control of the Project Manager. As the PM you are responsible for risk mitigation planning, you are responsible for identifying what could go wrong and coming up with a way to avoid, transfer, or mitigate it. But, what if your 3rd party vendor based in Germany plans a ski trip / team building exercise in which most of your developers become disabled or trapped due to an avalanche? Not your fault, probably not even something you had prior knowledge of, but guess what? Your timeline is blown, your development team is gone, and your project just went Red, but it is unrealistic to think you could have expected this. (see figure 1)

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 1

Does Green mean good?

Now be honest, do you feel like when your project is Green it means you’re doing a good job? If so, then what does Red mean? Does Red mean you are NOT doing a good job?

You should not be afraid of reporting something other than Green on your project. Furthermore, this is exactly why you are drawing a paycheck, this is exactly why you have a job. Again, projects go Red. If they didn’t, the organization wouldn’t need you around! Don’t get stuck in the thinking that Green means you are doing a good job and Red means you’ve done something wrong, or that Red means you are not good at the job.

- You are like the professional soldier who trains for war. You don’t hope for war, but you are there because war happens.
- You are the medical doctor who reads the test results and tells the patient she needs to stop smoking. Is it your fault that the patient smokes? If the patient chooses not to follow your instructions, does that make you a bad doctor?
- You are the professor grading the term paper. If one student gets an A grade on their paper and another student gets a D grade, does that mean you are both a good AND bad professor at the same time?

No, and again I say No.

You are responsible for reporting on the current condition of the project. You are not here to provide an emotional assessment or commentary on the current condition. You are not here to assign an emotional value to the new data you have. You are a profession who deals with data. It’s information, and as a PM you deal in information. You deal in facts, and those facts can and do change over time. Change is natural and should be expected. It’s why you are on the scene, to be able to address the change.

This should not be taken to mean that you don’t CARE about the status of the project. You are also a compassionate professional whose job it is to get the patient back to health. As a professional, there is no way you would simply report that the project is Red and turn your back, or walk away without also providing your plan for returning it to Green. This is why you are here. You are on the payroll to help ensure project success, and as such you will assess the cause of the current project condition and develop a recovery plan to return the project to Green. Report the Red condition as soon as you can, but you should be able to provide at least the beginnings of a recovery plan at the same time.

- As a professional soldier, you have trained and practiced for exactly this situation
- As that medical doctor you deliver the diagnosis, but you also give the patient the options for recovery treatments
- As the Professor, you hand the student their D grade, but also provide advice on how to get a better grade next time.

Red means “Time to Shine”!

In fact, if your project goes Red, REJOICE! (say what?!?)

Ok look, how are you going to get a reputation as a miracle worker if your projects are always green?? In fact.are all your projects are always green, all the time? Really? Come on. If all your projects are always Green, all the time…mmmmmm….. nah. Huh uh. Not buyin’ it. You are either not reporting correctly or you are the luckiest (and laziest) PM in town. No, real projects can go red. Yes, I would say that your ability to maintain a Green project is a good indicator of your skills as a PM. But I would also say that your skills as a PM are best tested and are most proven when your project goes Red, due to some Zone 2 or Zone 3 event, but then you develop and execute a recovery plan that turns that project around and amazes everyone. Do you want a chance to prove that you are in the right job? Do you want to flex your professional muscles, and prove your value? This is it. This is why we get the big bucks.

- Red means Rock and Roll.
- Red means Dig Deep
- Red means “stand back, I’ve got this”

Oh yeah, are there any points earned for recovering a project that went Red due to a Zone 1 incident? No, that’s your job. Taking credit for recovering from a Zone 1 incident is like taking credit for standing up after you fall down because you weren’t paying attention and walked into a lamp post. Best not to say anything about it, and just hope not too many people noticed.

Telling the story

Now, as the professor are you going to let that student fail? As the Physician, are you going to keep your treatment plan a secret, No, of course not. While Red is not necessarily your fault, you are still a professional who is going to attack that problem aggressively, and seek to return that patient to health.

Confidence. It is very important that you see yourself as reporting data and reporting it professionally. If you see Red as a failure of yours, then so will your audience. If you believe you are at fault then your project sponsors will sense that, and it will be hard for them not to join you in that feeling. Confidence is important. Confidence in yourself leads to confidence from your sponsors. Confidence from your sponsors, and your partners, makes your task much easier. Why would your project sponsors be confident in you, if you are not confident in yourself? You can fix this.

Reporting. It is also very important to understand your audience’s needs when reporting the incident that has caused this change in status. You will want to report the incident succinctly so that your audience can digest it quickly. I follow a simple formula. What happened? What does it mean? What am I doing about it? If you are reporting to senior management you need to realize these are busy people who receive information all day long.

To gain the most traction and the greatest amount of understanding regarding your issue, I find it best to use a few words as possible. I prefer bullet points, and simple explanations, at least in order to send the initial message. (see figure 2) It’s always good to have more information to share if you are asked to elaborate. In my opinion, loading up your audience with as much information as you can will help ensure that your message gets lost in the noise. It also makes your look hurried, desperate, and rushed. The formula I follow calls out the Issue, its Impact, and What Action I am taking (see figure 2)

The Issue will likely be technical in nature, and will probably be only 1 or 2 bullets. The Impact is a very important section because this helps raise the awareness, and the urgency, to the audience. This section serves to help the audience understand why this thing is important to them. It answers the question “ok, so what?”. The Action section is where you can shine. This is where you show them that you don’t just bring problems, you also bring solutions. This is where you describe what actions you have already taken, but don’t feel like you have to have the whole thing solved during this report. Your “action item” could simply be something like “I’m coming to you to get better direction”

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 2


- A project can go Red for many reasons, including things that are out of your control
- Green is a good sign that you’re are doing your job, but turning a project from Red to Green is great sign of your professional abilities
- Red is not bad, it’s just current. Red is not necessarily your fault, but it is definitely your time to shine.
- Report the change in status professionally, as an update in data. Report it professionally, in clear and simple terms, always sure to include what actions you are taking to return the status back to green

About the Author:

Robert Barger MBA, PMP is the author of Sam The Cat: A guide for memorizing the 42

subprocesses using Mnemonics and Memory Stepping Stones, a manuscript utilized by the Central Ohio PMI Chapter to assist students in preparing for the PMP examination, as well as Lessons for the Project Manager from French and Raven’s Bases of Power. Mr. Barger has been in the project management field since 2001 and has worked in a wide variety of industries and settings. Mr. Barger is currently working as a Principal Consultant for a Central Ohio technology solutions firm.

Deuteronomy 8:17-18

8 of 8 pages


Red, Yellow, Green. A Guide for Project Managers
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MBA, PMP Robert Barger (Author), 2015, Red, Yellow, Green. A Guide for Project Managers, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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