What to do when your project goes Red?

The use of color signals to indicate the progress or condition of a project is common. It’s a visual, easy to understand and shorthand way of telling anyone exactly what is happening. Green is the most appreciated signal. It tells us that there is nothing to report and the project is progressing well. The least appreciated signal is Red because it tells that one or more than one of the KPIs – key performance indicators – of cost, schedule or quality are in trouble. And this means immediate action is required. Red means the project has gone off the rails and the need for remedial activity is essential and immediate. Yellow is between the other colors and means that there are signs the project is at risk. On current data one of the performance indicators might fail unless the necessary action is taken.

So assuming the color Red is signaled, what does this mean? And more importantly, what can be done to save the project and get it back on the rails?

Firstly I am going to tell you to do the last thing you think you can do, Stop! Any warning sign, particularly a red one, needs to be examined for detail. As the saying goes, ‘the devil is in the detail’. It may well mean only one part of the project is in trouble. Of course that one part could derail the entire train but the important thing is to discover exactly what is wrong. Remember you can’t plan the fix until you know the details of the problem.  If the project just continues on as is it can lead to greater problems so consider stopping or at least slowing during the investigation process.  A lost week or two is better than a train wreck.

The three key areas of any project’s potential problem or problems can be found in the cost, the timing or schedule, resources or the quality of the end product. Now there could be a Red light on one, two or all of these components and if so, then a different rescue package will likely apply for each problem.

Now most projects rely on the project manager to produce the color and this can be announced on a regular basis even weekly depending on the importance of the overall project. But if the PM or someone flags a Red color, what can the company do to rectify the situation? Is it already too late to save the project?

There are many things which can be done to save a Red-flagged project but care must be taken throughout the process. Find the specific faults or errors and then have a plan to fix the situation. Without a plan, team members who will already be under stress because of the Red status, would find it difficult to work calmly and smartly to make things right. It is easy to lose motivation and for conflicts to arise unless a plan is used.

One excellent approach is to look at the damaged project, the one flagged Red, and see it as a new project. This removes the blame game which can accrue as to why the project got into trouble in the first place.

The next step in considering this ‘new’ project is to look at the risk management program. What are the risks for this project and what steps can be taken to remove or weaken such risks. Only then can a plan be enacted to resurrect this project and remove its Red status.

Seeing it as a new project, or solving the problems as a project itself allows you to look on from another perspective.  If you look at the problem from within it can be very difficult to crawl out and you find yourself running around just fighting fires.

Take a step back and ask yourself “if I was starting this as a new project, what would I do and need to make it work?”  Just looking at it from this perspective can bring a new clarity to the situation.

Once the solution has been determined, create your plan and take the steps to bring it back to Green. Don’t forget to include steps in your plan to motivate and inspire your team because in the end, they are the ones that will put the train back on the tracks so to speak. 


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