How to Manage Expectations on Yellow and Red Projects

Written by lewsauder

October 8, 2014

How to manage expectations

How to manage expectations on yellow and red projects

I once worked with a project manager who insisted on reporting projects as green in every weekly status report. There were times when he would alter an issue status or hide issues from executives to “fool” them into thinking everything was OK.

Sometimes this worked. The issue would get resolved and the executive never knew about it. More often than not, however, the issue would do one of two things. Word would get out and the executive would find out through the grapevine. Alternatively, the issue would persist or become larger giving the project manager no other choice but to report it to the executive. When either of these two situations occurred, the executive was surprised and had less time to react and make a decision. The project manager did not manage up to the executive appropriately.

How to manage expectations

Project Status Meeting

How to manage expectations

I’ve always been a proponent of transparency when reporting status. I use the “stoplight” approach for many areas of the project, reporting green if things are going well, yellow if there is any caution, and red if we are in trouble. If a project is in yellow or red status, it shouldn’t be hidden from the executives you report to.

For more information see Stakeholder Management for Project Managers

However, there are executives that panic when things are in yellow and go berserk when they see a red status. It is the project manager’s responsibility to manage up, ensuring that the executives respond appropriately. This can be done in many ways.

Related post: The Importance of the Status Report

Define yellow and red status up front

Many executives believe the project is in deep trouble as soon as they see a yellow status. That is often the belief in a culture where the expectation is that everything is good, even when it’s bad.

At the beginning and throughout the project, the project manager should educate the executive on the meanings of the statuses. I prefer to define them as follows:

Green – The project is on track. There are no major issues requiring executive input.

Yellow – There are some existing risks or issues that could cause the project to be delayed. When this happens, I will communicate the plan to bring the project back to green along with the expected timeline. No executive assistance is required

Red – An issue(s) has caused the project to be behind schedule and/or budget. Executive input is required to assist either bringing it back on track, extending the date, or increasing the budget.

These definitions should level set the executive so that he or she doesn’t overreact when yellow status is reported.

Provide a plan with yellow status

No executive assistance is required when reporting a yellow status. If a plan or multiple options are presented to the executive, he or she can be assured that proper steps are being taken to bring the project back to green.

Telling them that “you’re working on it,” does not instill confidence in them. They are less likely to refrain from getting involved, even if you don’t require it.

Report yellow status before reporting red

I’ve never met an executive that liked surprises. If you report green status one week and red the next, you’re asking for trouble. Yellow status is a heads up to them saying, “The schedule and/or budget are at risk right now but I have a plan to correct it.” When that occurs, they may give advice. They may keep a closer watch on things. Whether they do anything or not, you have given them “runway” to plan for the chance that the project goes red.

Inform the executive of yellow or red before the status meeting

As I mentioned, executives don’t like surprises. This includes yellow or red status in the status meeting. It’s always a good idea to warn the executive before the formal status meeting in front of other people. Telling him face to face is best. If that’s not possible, an email or even a phone call provides the heads up so they have a response prepared for the meeting.

Manage up to the micromanager

Some executives overreact to the yellow status. Perhaps they don’t manage up well to their own boss. Perhaps they expect every project to go perfectly at all times. Perhaps he or she isn’t a very good manager.

Whatever the reason, the best way to manage up to a micromanager is to over-inform. Micromanagers need information. The less you give, the more involved they will become, thinking you must be hiding something from them.

Give the micromanager updates on a frequent basis to let them know everything you’re doing to keep the project on track or to bring it back on track. The tendency with micromanagers often is to avoid them. That will only backfire.


It is never fun to report yellow or red status for a project. But if you manage up to the executive, you can keep the executive informed of the status and eventually gain his or her confidence that you can manage when things do not go as planned.

Have you ever had to manage up to an executive that you report to?

If you would like to learn more about a career in Project Management, get Lew’s book Project Management 101: 101 Tips for Success in Project Management on Amazon.

Please feel free to provide feedback in the comments section below.

Lew’s Books at Amazon:

Project Management 101
Consulting 101
The Reluctant Mentor

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