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I learned a new word today … chromatophobia (the fear of colors).

Millions of years of evolution have instilled in us an innate fear of the colors red and yellow, often with good reason. Ever been stung by an angry wasp, or seen Nottingham Forrest play at home recently?

In the wild we’re conditioned to fear these colors. They scream out “danger”, “do not touch”, or “run away now”. For most of us it’s just part of our psyche – something primitive designed to instil fear and ultimately induce a flight response to something that could potentially do us harm.

With some project sponsors we can often be more specific with a diagnosis – ereuthophobia (fear of red status reports) or xanthophobia (fear of amber status reports).

Project and program managers tend to be more objective with their use of RAG statuses, however.

Most organizations I’ve worked in attempt to define the conditions that would cause a status to be red/amber. These definitions are all broadly of a muchness, built around the following core definitions:

  • Red – Remedial action is required.
  • Amber – Either a potential problem has been identified and is being monitored OR a problem has been identified and corrective action is being taken.
  • Green – The project is proceeding to plan.

When correctly used, constructively and objectively, they inform and drive executive action.

Over the lifecycle of any project one would typically expect the full range of RAG statuses to be used at some point. All projects have a risk profile, and most will require remedial action at some point. People should be skeptical of a project that is consistently green.

Kiron D. Bondale’s excellent post on status reports underlines this point. Read it here at The Project Management Hut.

The Project Manager lives and breathes the project day-in, day-out. Where an organization has taken the trouble to define what red, amber and green actually mean, and the project manager has applied those definitions correctly to his/her project, he/she is usually the best-placed person to assess its status. It’s then the job of the program manager to apply the challenge and any potential override required before presentation to senior management.

In all too many organizations steering committees spend way too much time debating whether a project or program’s status is really as the PM has assessed it, or whether that red should really be amber, that amber should really be green, or my personal favorite, resetting a red status to “red/amber”.

So next time your sponsor screws his face up at your red or amber status, push back. It could be an acute case of chromatophobia (or perhaps he’s just chewing on a very angry wasp).

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