How to Report Red Amber Green Status

Red amber green status
Red amber green status

For as long as we can remember, the red amber green status has been a mainstay in project management reporting. It has become universal for a number of reasons. First, everybody is familiar with the stoplight colors. The value they communicate is also pretty intuitive. Green means go. Yellow means caution. Red means stop.

It also provides a helpful visual indication. Reading text is cumbersome, while RAG (red-amber-green status) provides a quick view of where the project stands before a word has to be read.

But like anything so simple, it can be problematic. Ask five project managers to assess where a project is and you will likely get five different answers.

Defining red amber green status

Most people will agree to the general definitions of each indicator:

Green: The project is on track and no executive action is required.

Amber: This is the warning indictor. It most often means that the project has experienced some serious issues and the project manager has had to make some decisions to deal with it. It doesn’t usually require executive involvement, but they should be aware for closer observation.

Red: The project is behind schedule and needs management intervention to help correct something. Within the triple constraint – scope, time, and cost – at least one of them has gotten out of hand.

Although most project managers and executives would agree with these general definitions, it becomes tricky when trying to assess the project for presentation to the executives.

Many project managers are afraid that it will appear as a sign of weakness if they report amber or red to the executive. They want to report that everything is going well. Even if the project is experiencing problems, many project managers tend to downplay them, feeling they can manage them without executive intervention.

The need for honesty

The project manager that reports things as rosier (or greener) than they really are can sometimes get away with it. If there is a major issue going on, why bother the executive if you can manage it yourself?

Sometimes, the project manager can get away with it. Report the project as green, solve the problem yourself, and the executive doesn’t need to be bothered.

But if you cover up that issue and you’re unable to resolve it, it most likely becomes a major issue. Suddenly you go from reporting the project as green one week, and red the next week.

Executives may not like amber and red statuses. But more than anything, they don’t like surprises. If you had honestly reported the project as amber and described the issue, it could have gone two different ways. If you were able to resolve the issue, the project goes back to green and that amber you reported was just a blip in the project. If you’re unable to resolve the problem, it may get worse. Now that amber you reported has turned red. While that isn’t good, it’s much better than surprising an executive by going from green straight to red.

Political ramifications

Sometimes the reluctance that project managers feel in reporting amber and green is because of the anticipated executive response. Some executives tend to make a bigger deal out of what they consider negative news.

While amber should indicate that there is a problem they should be aware of, some executives can’t resist the urge to manage when they should back off. Overactive executives often take over management of the project. This often results in marginalizing the project manager when they should allow their project manager to handle the issue on their own.

And if that’s how an executive handles an amber status, let’s not even discuss how they will deal with red status. In situations like this, project managers will go to great lengths to avoid honestly reporting amber or red status.

Agreeing up front

When starting a new project, the project manager should hold an introductory meeting with any executives that will receive red amber green status. In this meeting, they should agree on the definitions of each status. They should also define the responsibilities for each party when amber and red status is reported.

Executives should agree that amber is for informational purposes. They may want status reported on a more frequent basis. But they generally should not get involved in decision making at this point, unless the project manager requests assistance.

When red is reported, specific executive action is usually required. But the executive needs to understand that it is a normal part of the life of a project. Projects go red and need executive assistance. Punishing or deriding the project manager whenever a project goes red creates a negative environment and hinders productivity.

Conclusion

Red amber green status should be a form of communication. Throughout the life of a project, things happen that put the project in a riskier situation than usual. Very few projects are green throughout their lifetime. I once worked for an executive who felt that if you were always green, you weren’t trying to achieve enough.

When projects do go amber and red, executives have a responsibility not to panic, but to help bring the project back on track.

What issues have you run into when reporting red amber green status?

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