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Three Reasons to Dim Project Stoplights

Too many stoplights can cause a pile up, and a pile up can create a lot of disgruntled drivers, or in this case, rattled IT workers. Project stoplights are supposed to be indicators of the status of key project progress measurements, generally coming in familiar green, yellow, and red varieties. But Kevin Korterud is seeing lately what he refers to as “stoplight overkill,” and he writes for PMI three reasons to cut back on project stoplights:

  1. Stoplights are not progressive.
  2. Stoplight bands mean different things to different measurements.
  3. Stoplights can be “gamed.”

Since a stoplight is inherently working with three colors, it does not offer the ability to show many degrees of difference. A piece of data might technically fall into “yellow” territory but realistically be sitting just above “red,” or vice versa. Stoplights are very static in this regard. This lack of certainty follows on into the second reason: 

Stoplights break down into bands of tolerance ranges. For example, zero to 5 percent variance would be green, 5 to 10 percent variance would be yellow and above 10 percent would be red. The problem is, project measurement indicators might not follow a common range. For example, how realistic is it to measure customer satisfaction with the same band as test case validation? While test case validation might make sense at 7 percent, it would be discouraging if just 7 percent of your customers were happy with your project. 

Gaming stoplights so that they are made to appear green regardless of the reality of the situation is a fast way to build toward a calamity. If they are going to be forced green for the sake of appearances, there is no point in using them at all. Korterud recommends using things like scatterplots of projected and actual completion dates to display progress in deliverables, or using customer satisfaction on a timeline to show a project’s impact on a sponsor’s business. The goal here is to use units of measurement that actually make sense on a case by case basis, and they should be used sparingly enough that when they appear, nobody will mind yielding to the light.

About John Friscia

John Friscia is the Editor of Computer Aid's Accelerating IT Success. He began working for Computer Aid, Inc. in 2013 and continues to provide graphic design support for AITS. He graduated summa cum laude from Shippensburg University with a B.A. in English.

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