Defining Status Metrics: RAG, Trends, and Transitions

Execution

We’re judged on our results, rather than our intentions

A colleague of mine, Rob Young, lamented the lack of rigor in governance by new project managers. This is especially evident in red / amber / green (RAG) summaries in status reports, where a failing project can still be reported as green. “Clearly, there needs to be a common understanding of the status metric that is being reported against and the rationale for moving between statuses.”

Rob is absolutely correct: You can’t manage what you don’t measure, and you can’t effectively communicate your measurements if there are no well-understood units of measure. And as Glen Alleman regularly insists, the dimensions measured and units of measurement need to be meaningful to the decision-makers and applicable to their problem domain.

Selecting Project Dimensions for RAG Measurement

While I am an advocate of using RAG status indicators to direct attention to specific areas, such as schedule, budget, quality, staffing, and so on, I believe that reporting an overall project status or risk status using RAG is “governance for dummies.” These are complex topics deserving of a short narrative description that invites inquiry into the details. More on that below.

Prior to the project kickoff, select dimensions that are both relevant to the project and meaningful to your stakeholders, and create a reporting definition statement for each one. Schedule and quality are always relevant, and unless you have an unusual situation, so is budget. Projects with a dependence on shared resources should include staffing. You may also need dimensions for software development, change management and communication, data record conversion, and so on. Then describe how you intend to measure that aspect of your project, as you move from one phase to another. For example, your projected budget should be broken down by month, or whatever shorter time period is meaningful. With that assumption, consider this description:

Budget: Cumulative non-BAU spending to date matches cumulative projected spending in the approved project budget, with approved changes. Capital budget expenditures tracked separately from those to be treated as operating expenses.

  • Green: Cumulative capital spending not more than 3% over budget and operating expenses not more than 5% over budget and no anticipated events are expected to change this state
  • Amber: Cumulative capital spending more than 3% over budget or operating expenses more than 5% over budget, or an anticipated event is expected to put the project over these limits
  • Red: Cumulative capital spending more than 5% over budget or operating expenses more than 10% over budget, or an anticipated event is expected to put the project over these limits

This definition is both precise and verifiable throughout the project life cycle. Other dimensions, such as quality, are more complex and may need different definitions in different project phases.

Trends and Transitions

Once you’ve reported an amber or red status, you have their attention. But when you transition from amber in one reporting period to red in a subsequent period, or red back to amber, you are indicating more than just a status—you are describing a change of state.Consider this example definition:

  • Green to Amber: An issue has been identified that is driving the project over budget, and corrective action is being taken. If the underlying issue has not been identified or no mitigation is possible, report as Red
  • Amber to Red: The underlying issue that drove the project over budget has not been corrected and executive management attention is required
  • Amber to Green or Red to Amber: The underlying issue that drove the project over budget has been corrected and the overage recovered, or the adjusted budget has been approved
  • Red to Green: Not an acceptable transition in a single period

I’ve seen some status reports that use arrows to identify trends. For example, an up arrow indicates trending toward green, down represents trending red, and an arrow pointing to the right indicates a steady state. Trend reporting can be useful, if accurate, but if you report an upward trend from amber in one period and then red in the next, you are going to face some well-deserved hard questions. If you decide to report trends, be sure your stakeholders understand what you want them to do with the information—a down arrow may not mean “all hands on deck.”

Dimensions Where RAG Isn’t Appropriate

As I mentioned earlier, overall status and risk are not RAG-appropriate. Smart stakeholders and sponsors don’t get bogged down in the details, but they want the ability to identify, investigate, and act on a specific, troublesome weed. Facilitate this with your narrative descriptions. If a risk has morphed into an issue or has been overtaken by events and is no longer a concern, say as much. If the schedule has slipped due to resource conflicts with another project or with business as usual, be specific. One team’s solution can easily become another team’s issue. It may be that the conflicting demand really has a higher priority, but let the sponsor and stakeholders make the decision, explicitly.

I’ve also learned to like using “++” and “–“ to flag changes in scope. For example:

  • — Interface to FloximateKersplunk moved to Phase 2, per Nixard Richon
  • ++ Additional testing of GL interface approved and funded by CFO

Also, as Rob points out, “Especially on T&M projects there should of course be no reason not to report spend (in hours and dollars), and estimate to complete.” If you are managing a project with multiple vendors, it may be useful to break out their costs separately, in a detail section. If one vendor is way over budget, while the others are on target, don’t just report amber.

Actionable Information in Digestible Form

The people who are reading your status reports can handle mixed metaphors, so aim for clarity and accuracy rather than mind-numbing consistency. Deliver actionable information and recommend actions. You can be concise and clear, if you seek to communicate rather than just fill out some weekly form.

Consider the ultimate in status reporters: those folks who forecast the weather. They start with current temperature, humidity, precipitation, and so on, and then talk about their projections. You quickly learn whether you need an umbrella or sun block, and when you need a sweater, because they don’t just give you the numbers—they help you reach conclusions. Watch, and learn.

New PM Articles for the Week of March 16 – 22

New project management articles published on the web during the week of March 16 – 22. And this week’s video: Harry Hall talks about the need to identify a risk owner along with the project risks you want to manage. 3 minutes, safe for work.

Ethics, Business Acumen and Strategy

  • Zorana Ivcevic and colleagues reports on results of a survey that found an alarming level of pressure to act unethically in US organizations. 5 minutes to read.
  • Ron Rivers examines the intersection of technology and labor, from early history to the near future. 13 minutes to read.
  • Adam Rasmi reports that COVID-19 is also impacting negotiations between the UK and EU on a post-Brexit free trade agreement. 2 minutes to read.

Managing Projects

  • Mike Clayton explains how to manage multiple projects at once. Video, 15 minutes, safe for work.
  • Marina Pilipenko tutors us on project cost management. 7 minutes to read.
  • Peter Landau coaches us on making a procurement management plan. Part of it is a commercial, but you also watch television, right? 6 minutes to read.
  • Jory MacKay guides us through writing a communication plan. 9 minutes to read.
  • Brad Egeland walks us through the process of handing a project off to another project manager. 4 minutes to read.
  • The nice folks at Clarizen compiled a list of five books that every project manager should read. 3 minutes to read.

Managing Software Development

  • Stefan Wolpers curates his weekly list of Agile content, from what drives performance of a distributed agile team to disagreement in distributed teams to the magic of conflict. 7 outbound links, 3 minutes to read.
  • Kiron Bondale argues that domain and organizational knowledge are the key requirement for prospective product managers. 3 minutes to read.
  • Tanay Agrawal suggests that product managers need to see their product like a new user, every single day. 5 minutes to read.
  • Henny Portman shows the difference between incremental and iterative Here’s Part Two, about ten minutes to read both parts.
  • Ankur Jain explains a diagram of the DevOps life cycle. 2 minutes to read.
  • Maximilian Bauer says that being smarter about test cases and how they are structured can save money in testing. 7 minutes to read.

Applied Leadership

  • George Pitagorsky tells us how to manage fear and anger in projects. 5 minutes to read.
  • Christine Trodella has some thoughts on managing newly remote workers, when you don’t know how long they’ll be working from home. 7 minutes to read.
  • Sharlyn Lauby uses the Marvel Cinematic Universe to illustrate keys points on how to manage the external workforce, both project-based and recurring. 4 minutes to read, plus a video interview, 10 minutes, safe for work.
  • Amelia Salyers curates a list of 22 articles for leaders from the past few years, published by venture capital firm Andreeson Horowitz. 5 minutes to read the synopses.

Cybersecurity and Data Protection

  • Curtis Franklin gives us a brief overview of how to quantify cybersecurity risks. 4 minutes to read.
  • Brenda Sharton sees plentiful opportunities for cybercriminals in the new “work from home” mantra of COVID-19. 4 minutes to read.

Pot Pourri

  • Elizabeth Harrin gives us some useful pointers for setting up our home office. 4 minutes to read.
  • Stephanie Vozza notes that generalists tend to be more successful, but only if they get really good at a few useful skills that combine to make them stand out. 3 minutes to read.
  • Sarath C P shares six tips for creating an effective elevator pitch. 5 minutes to read. You’ll need to find your own elevator …

Enjoy!

A Good Stopping Point

Status

Dave GordonIn July of 2010, I published my first round-up of news, articles, blog posts, and other content of interest to project managers. I missed a couple of weeks over the last ten years, due to trans-Pacific travel and a relatively minor cerebrovascular event, but for the most part, I’ve kept up the weekly schedule. On March 29, 2020 I’ll publish the 500th weekly round-up. That seems like a good stopping point.

Without counting, I’ll estimate that I’ve linked to around 10,000 or so articles, podcasts, videos, blog posts, and so on. In a typical week, I read six for every one I link to, although it doesn’t seem like I read 60,000 articles. That’s a lot of content, and I offer a tip of the hat to all of the people who created it.

I finished my last consulting project at the end of January, 2018, and let my PMP expire by not renewing it in January, 2020. Maybe I should re-name the site The Retired IT Project Manager, but it quit being about me a long time ago. I’ll keep the site up, since there are also about 250 other posts on various topics that I wrote over the last ten years, as well as a couple of books and sample files still available for free download. Over the next few weeks, I’ll also upload new versions of  a few articles I wrote for other sites that are no longer available. If there’s sufficient interest, I’ll update and compile some of the stuff I’ve written over the last ten years that’s still relevant into one final book and make it available on Amazon, as I did with the data conversion book. “Selected Articles and Notes From a Curmudgeon” sounds like a good sub-title.

Speaking of books, I also want to finish writing the thriller I started working on a few years ago, about a road trip during a particularly scary flu epidemic. If it were already published, I might be enjoying better-than-expected sales. And another novel about the mystery of a jumbo jet that just … disappeared. The working title is, “The Sullenberger Maneuver.” And of course, I’ll spend more time turning perfectly good wood into sawdust, shavings, and chips in my garage workshop.

Thanks to everyone who ever hired or engaged me, managed me, taught me, worked with me, reported to me, listened to me, argued with me, read my stuff, commented, or thought about things that I brought up. Well, maybe not everyone. But almost everyone.

Peace be with you.