Project Management: From Red Lights to Green Lights

How many books have been published and classes taught on project management? Yet, we have too many projects that are “Red”, “Pink”, or “Yellow” rather than the “Green Light” projects and products we celebrate.


  • A city in Michigan switches from one water supply to another and experiences elevated levels of lead in their drinking water. If crimes were committed, they weren’t the root cause of the mess, and an exclusive focus on legal remedies won’t prevent messes like this from occurring again.
  • On a high profile facility project where the designers/constructors were capable organizations with good reputations, the cost escalates to where the project has to be suspended and a political tsunami occurs.
  • Many projects, like the California rail project, using early-stage estimates to set budgets, with many unknowns and important decisions still to be made, end up costing 50% more than originally estimated, or 2-3 times as much.


Reading and listening to the news, these aren’t rare occurrences. Must we accept such outcomes now and then—bad luck, bad karma, once in a lifetime “asteroid strikes”?


Some would like to reduce project management to a mechanical exercise, good software, the right reports, but good PM is also an art, especially in relation to communications, and it requires virtue: prudence, humility, and perseverance. Focusing exclusively on reports and software may make you a better PM, but not a great one. My experience managing many projects, conducting hundreds of pre, mid, and post-project face to face customer interviews, conducting hundreds of project audits with project managers, and hearing plenty from project team members who have experienced too many troubled projects, suggests measures that can significantly reduce the number of “Red Light” projects.


ISO certification and Ford Q1 taught us that some ISO procedures produce little if any practical benefit, many produce some benefit some of the time, and a few are high impact. These highest impact processes are where we applied most of our energy, where I focused on my own projects, and when training, coaching, and auditing project managers. Yes, these high impact processes take effort, but organizations find the time to clean up “Red Light” projects, so why not invest a fraction of the time to prevent these messes? I’m convinced a one-day What Could Go Wrong session with the right water expert could have prevented the Flint heartbreak and subsequent remediation/legal costs.


Excellent project management is a differentiator, just as a great quarterback is a differentiator. I’ve conducted project completion interviews with satisfied customers on projects I knew had experienced problems. Conversely, I’ve interviewed customers who were less than satisfied than I’d expected on projects with very few technical/delivery problems—project management was the difference.


What is necessary to get to “Green Light” projects and products (consistently superior outcomes) rather than “Yellow Light” (superior outcomes mixed with mediocre outcomes), “Pink Light” (consistently mediocre outcomes), and “Red Light” (too many bad outcomes)?


  • Work Definition that is as clear to all parties as possible, including identifying Work Not Included. This means thinking expansively about the project/product, asking What Could Go Wrong, what aren’t we considering. In our rush to get the work underway, we often shortchange the probing questions that can make a big difference. Without clear definition, the project manager is vulnerable to all kinds of project twists and turns and the customer won’t know, or will misunderstand, what to expect.
  • A documented face to face pre-project Customer Interview to confirm expectations, as well as outcomes the customer cannot accept, to resolve discrepancies between expectations and the contracted work before the project proceeds, with mid-project interviews on longer duration projects to identify essential adjustments, and a project completion interview to measure performance and identify systemic issues. I have done hundreds of these interviews and every one has produced something we hadn’t expected or considered.
  • A concise Project Work Plan (Roadmap) that includes more than just the contracted work definition, addressing risk (What Could Go Wrong—see Michigan lead mess), measures to eliminate or mitigate risks, project communications, team budgets that may be different than anticipated in the proposal, when quality reviews will occur and by whom. 2-4 pages rather than a thesis. For early-stage cost estimates, risk can be mitigated by providing a cost range with a best estimate within this range rather than one number packed with assumptions and contingencies. This approach frames the degree of risk and allows the customer to participate in establishing risk tolerance. An organic Roadmap that changes when the project changes so the project manager and team have a common understanding of responsibilities and accountability. In this era of emails and texting, with big generational differences in job/life priorities, project managers must take time for face-to-face conversations when important commitments are being sought. Clarity with delivery dates and times, product content, level of effort, obstacles to the commitment, with repetition as necessary.
  • Status Reports to the customer that address work performed, including requested or perceived changes in the work that may affect budget, schedule, and risk (the high profile facility project that progressed so far without official change/cost authorization). This requires the project manager to be knowledgeable about the true status of the project, probing risk as the project/product development proceeds, and puts the customer on notice if they have essential responsibilities to fulfill or decisions to make.
  • A means to regularly assess Work Actually Completed in relation to the hours/dollars spent. More than a few project managers have asked how their project could be 90% complete a month earlier, with 50% of the budget being spent since that time. The answer? The PM’s estimate of work actually completed was flawed, or the project team didn’t want to bear bad news, or the PM/team succumbed to the inclination to be overly optimistic about completion, or a combination of the above. Best if the project manager comes at this estimate from more than one angle—task by task completion, deliverables completed, drawing status, QC feedback. Strive for your best estimate of percent complete, then reduce this percentage by 10-30%. If you estimate 70% complete, actual completion is probably closer to 40-60%. What harsh experience has taught me.


An article could be written about each of these high impact processes identifying things that can make them more effective (useful) but the most important thing is to do them with prudence, humility, and perseverance. All can be adapted to PM programs and customer requirements already in place. These high impact processes presuppose a competent project team. Good project management can’t make up for incompetent planners, designers, QC, or builders.


My “Red Light” hell: poorly defined work, no pre or post project customer interviews, no project work plan, no project status reports, pro forma/superficial quality reviews, a belief that what’s spent equals work actually completed.


Meeting project budgets is essential, but the best project managers know project/product success is more than dollars and cents. Satisfied customers, companies that meet their profit goals to stay healthy, project teams that take satisfaction in their work, communities and companies and environments enhanced. More than just mess avoidance; the bigger picture, the things we remember when the dust has settled. Getting from “Red Lights” to “Green Lights” makes life better.