It’s Friday 13 April 2022 and the non-covid sickness is still lingering over our house.
It was not overly sunny, nor was it rainy.
Instead it was slightly cold, and a sort of uninteresting median grey up in the sky.
Because I am me, I am simultaneously reading: Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, by Dan Kindlon, Ph.D., and Michael Thompson, Ph.D (about 20 years late); The Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco by John Helyar and Bryan Burrough (I mean, really?!); and The Hidden Spring, by Mark Solms.
I was in a prep/review meeting ahead of a client presentation recently giving feedback and started thinking about traffic lights.
Traffic lights turn up a lot in project statuses and this particular project isn’t out of the ordinary for using them. You’d throw up traffic lights against different categories and maybe you even have a traffic light for overall project health. For the avoidance of doubt, green would mean everything’s going great, yellow/amber means “not so great” and red means “in an unhealthy, dysfunctional environment, people are going to get yelled at”.
There’s two problems here.
Here’s the first one: yellow doesn’t actually mean anything and is just shorthand. Look at it this way. You end up having to explain what yellow means: does it mean something’s running late? Does it mean there’s a dependency on an external group that’s a blocker? Does it mean you don’t understand something that you need to understand? Does it mean you have an unanticipated hole in your scope? Did someone just sue you but you don’t know what to do about it? Did the number of tweets Elon Musk has ever tweeted about you in gone from zero to more than zero in the previous quarter?
That leads into the second problem. Actual traffic lights flip from red to yellow to green and back to red after a predetermined amount of time, and if you’re lucky they take into account a limited amount of context or their environment. Traffic lights are also… relatively single dimensional in their objective? (This is where urban planners and transport planners roll their eyes at me and I am very, very sorry) Like, their objective is a tool to make sure a) as few people die as possible (I mean, I hope so?) and b) people get to where they’re going in a reasonable amount of time, which they would, if there were more public transport in the mix of an integrated transit policy. Thanks, America and cars.
Anyway: a typical pattern is that a project can go green green green green green and then flip to red. At that point a bunch of people get angry and might start yelling, more and more people pile into conference rooms, presentations get longer and people get more stressed. Traffic lights do not flip from green to red, generally. And if you are using one of those four-way stops that are common in America then stop it, you should use a roundabout and I have no idea what the software project/delivery management equivalent of a roundabout is. Oh my god it’s probably agile/continuous integration and continuous delivery. CI/CD and agile: the roundabout of traffic management. SAFe: the Milton Keynes of software delivery. OH MY GOD WHAT HAVE I DONE.
My point in this particular review was that if you have a status as yellow/amber what you actually mean is that “something is not right” or “we are worried about something” or “something that we expected to happen or are expecting to happen may now be less likely to happen”. In which case my advice is to dispense with the yellow altogether and instead just say: “We are now worried about this thing, and these are the implications of that thing.”
Instead, just write down what you’re worried about. I mean, try not to write it in corporate bullshit. Don’t equivocate. Just tell the truth.
For example, if you’re worried that you’re not going to hit a deadline to achieve some sort of certification then just say “It’s likely we won’t achieve the certification deadline because x”, instead of “due to procedure x, requirement y and environmental condition z there is a risk that project delivery may be adversely affected”. No. That’s now what you mean. You are avoiding saying something that you think is painful, but the thing is, it’s true. So just say the true thing.
Whether you feel comfortable about telling the truth is on you and the people-environment in which you’re operating. See above, “will people yell at us”.
Now, if your list is really long then guess what: you don’t need to use yellow or amber. The list is just really long. You have not abstracted away your worries, you’ve clearly confronted them.
See, one reason why some people like traffic lights is because they might be, I don’t know, in leadership or management positions. They just want to know waves hands the general disposition of the project, right? Not too many details.
Ah, but details are important. And if the project is critical, then they’re effectively absolving themselves of responsibility by not understanding what’s critical about the project. And it’s your responsibility to do the best so that they understand what’s critical about the project. Then they can still make all the terrible (or not!) decisions they want, but they won’t be uninformed about them. Don’t be a party to cosseting them about being uninformed and not taking responsibility. Don’t hide the truth behind a traffic light.
What if they keep asking for a traffic light and start yelling at you? That’s a different problem.
PS. The thing about Yellow status is that either you wait and then it inevitably turns Red, or you wait and it inevitably turns Green, but either way, the traffic light does that without you having to do anything. This is, in its own way, an amazingly insightful observation about the nature of reporting in software projects.
So I get this letter from this financial institution, let’s say, I don’t know, it’s whoever administers benefits at a certain large state that’s a member of a union of states, and it’s a two page letter which basically says: if you don’t do this thing by this date, you’re going to be screwed out of an amount of money.
My response is: oh, well I guess I need to do that thing. Great job institution for notifying me through the method of paper, good job me for actually going through all the paper that’s being printed and shipped to our house.
The notice says: right, so you’ve got two choices. To carry out either of those choices you can call us, or go to our website and look for the documents and forms link and then click on that link and then look for this booklet and then that booklet will tell you what to do.
And I’m all: you went to the expense and trouble of sending me a notice that I have to do a thing, made clear the consequence of not doing that thing by a certain date, and then… did not include the thing for me to do the thing? Like, not even a link? Or a shortcut? Or, god forbid, a QR code? And you said I have to log in to do it, when after I’ve got it, it doesn’t have any sensitive information on it, because it’s just a form to fill in?
I would be forgiven for wondering if you’re actually indifferent toward the bad financial consequence happening to me or that you’re actively kind of hoping that the bad financial consequence will happen to me, because then you get some extra money.
Which seriously is kind of confusing given that you, the financial institution, is also under obligation to take care of my money? Like, taking care of my money should also involve not administratively trapping me into you accidentally getting my money? I have not checked but I am assuming that you have a literal fiduciary responsibility to me, and I would like to make the argument that your responsibility is not discharged by merely telling me that the load-bearing structure will disappear from me in ten seconds when you simultaneously have the ability to prevent that load-bearing structure from disappearing. I mean, really? That’s a curious way of being responsible. I get that I’m an adult but like you, financial institution, I have shit I have to do and it would be nice if you made some of it easier to do.
It is strange, in a way, that you have not done anything about this, financial institution. The fact that you have not appeared to have tried to do anything about it is a signal that you do not actually care. Because if you cared, even if it were hard, you would have done something about it. It would have been a priority for you to show how you discharge your duties to your customers not only responsibly, but in an actively engaged manner.
But no, you are a legacy institutional bureaucracy with silos and a system for sending Notifications and a separate system for processing Transactions and never the ‘twain shall meet.
My consulting rates are reasonable, SavingsPlus of the State of California.
Did you know there are sites that plagiarize article and replace random words with synonyms?
The existence of this site is Google’s fault. That’s all.
It is Friday!
This has been a very complicated week. Thank you to everyone who has replied with a note, and a respectful slight nod to everyone who hasn’t and feels guilty about it (don’t).
How has your week been?