Project ManagementTom Swider

Project Communications – Raising the Red Flag


  1. Be mindful when issuing warnings (red flags). Initial reactions to a problem are often wrong. This is natural because it takes some time to recover from seeing something incorrect and to clarify the situation. Abrupt stops can create unintended consequences.
  2. Project Management Information Systems can keep the team informed so that they can better interpret the red flag when it is raised.
  3. Email is a common way red flags are raised. The results often lead to raised stress levels and confusion. Prefacing your communications with your motives, reasons, and expectations can help minimize that impact, and perhaps prevent wide-spread “cc” usage to “cya.”
  4. PMOs can facilitate communications with stakeholders, reducing the overall volume of communication and increasing its accuracy and effectiveness. They can also provide third party neutrality and protection that allows truths to surface.

One Thousand Runners, One Map

Imagine a race where only the frontrunner had the map. Most of the participants didn’t need a map because they’ve run this race so many times before, or figure that they would take the lead from those before them. The starter’s pistol is fired, and off we go.

At a mid-course intersection, things don’t seem like they should to the frontrunner as the map doesn’t make sense, perhaps because of new construction. The runner begins to go one way and stops. Then turns around to go the other way.  Wait!  The first way was right after all.

Imagine the chaos for those following. Some continued to run forward like they always did. Others took the detour but didn’t notice the frontrunner changed direction again. Some stopped to catch their breath, while others went off in their own direction. Hopefully nobody was injured.

Project managers are responsible both for the flow and control of communication.  Input must come in at a rate sufficient to make decisions. Information flow and decision making processes need to be in alignment. Flow that is too slow or fast will either delay decisions or hinder it with information overload.  Some decisions require more time for analysis.

Communication flow and control need to consider human nature. Our natural impulse when an incident arises is to try to be helpful and act immediately. This isn’t always effective. A communications plan should include policies on escalation, including process steps and responsibilities. For example, an ordinary software problem of medium complexity could be escalated up to senior management, even before the problem is verified. In terms of the race analogy, there should have been a signal for the pack to reduce speed and even announce a small delay before resuming the race. Project managers should consider the natural impulse for people to try to help and determine whether that ultimately helps or hinders progress.

Kanban for Flow and Control

Kanban is a visual method for modeling work throughput. A display is divided into sections showing different stages of work (either projects or operations). The size (or number of boxes) within a section shows how many tasks should be allowed at one time. This provides an aerial view of your work flow so you can see where all your runners are at one point. This helps the pack see where traffic jams and stoppages are occurring.

Project managers further signal a slowdown by blocking out a Kanban box or section with a temporary “orange pylon” as a means of telling the project team that a slowdown is occurring. There should also be a section that represents key decision points (such as requirements approval). Seeing these delays may help determine where project team member efforts are best focused. When the project manager removes the block, it signals to the team to speed up again.

Part of the problem with the race is that only one person had the map. A PMIS should provide all team members with visibility so that they can better contribute to the situation. Lack of visibility may put blinders on the team, so they only can react when a special meeting is called or when somebody complains.

There is also a problem with our traditional view of the business convention of marking projects, tasks or issues green, yellow or red. For those unfamiliar, green normally means everything is okay, yellow means that there may be problems, and red means there is a problem.  It is intended to help busy managers quickly identify what needs their attention.

On the road, yellow is not a warning or midpoint. It is a signal that red is about to occur. The timing between a light changing from yellow to red is set in a way to allow drivers enough reaction time to stop. The perceived need for being “faster quicker” creates a problem in that we no longer have a true yellow signal. Project managers need to think about the communications prior to raising red flags.

Perils of Email

Email is an important communication tool but better communications occur when using multiple methods. The perspectives of flow and control apply here as well.

Flow of email is unpredictable but it is convenient (at least for the initial communication).  People will respond at different times and urgencies. Some delays may be so long that the problem is no longer valid or creates unnecessary urgency or stress.

Email allows some control in the ability to think out your message before it is released. The success of control depends in part upon your written communication skills. Stating the intent and motive of your communications before going into details can help others interpret your communication. Without this information, people may not react in a desired manner.  Email also has the annoying tendency to snowball with a growing list of people cc’ed to the original message.

PMO as Traffic Cop

Project Management Offices (PMOs) and PMIS provide ways of improving how to deal with red flag situations.  Many PMOs are responsible for communications with stakeholders. In such situations, the PMO is aware of arising situations across multiple projects or for specific critical situations. They can execute a controlled communication so that stakeholders are aware of a developing situation, the potential impact, and what it might mean for them. PMOs that are responsible for stakeholder communications greatly reduce the potential number of communication lines, saving time and energy, and perhaps reducing email inbox clutter. This assumes that management abides by this convention, enforces the communication path, and reigns in the natural tendency to jump into the fray when they may be inflicting help rather than providing help.

Surveys and collaborative tools are also excellent ways of helping identify potential red flags.  Ideas come to us at a variety of times, as well as the need to express that idea before we move on to other things and forget. Others may not be available to receive those ideas at the time you are ready to express them. As a result, many great ideas are lost in email. Collaborative tools such as web sites and social media can allow us to share ideas or raise our concerns. Their success rates are very much a function of organizational culture and the worker generation.

CAI’s APO application helps accelerate important discussions by allowing regular opportunities to share feedback with project management. Compared to a once and done survey or web site, a program of regular questionnaire data collection provides a means of raising concerns in a structured manner that occurs asynchronously. APO questionnaires occur slower than meetings, but their input augments subsequent meetings by allow teams to jump to the heart of important matters. After a while, project team members find that they are actually making accomplishments during meetings.  It is also slower than an email, but doesn’t get lost amongst the hundreds of competing messages per day, and remains as a controlled discussion amongst those who have a need to know. This strategy can reduce the out of control cc email distribution.

One drawback to questionnaires and business intelligence tools that seek soft data feedback is trust. These types of tools magnify the trust or non-trust of a team. These tools can be seen as more “big brother” than “team facilitation” when there is no trust, and the data collected can do more harm than good. Remember that people are hesitant to say “I don’t trust you” so there should be good assurances of trust in place within your culture before adapting a business intelligence-based solution for projects.

Third parties such as CAI’s Virtual Project Office (VPO) can help build trust. If the BI tool is managed by a third party and this is clearly communicated to project team members and to stakeholders, information will likely be more truthful and blunt when they understand that the feedback is anonymous and the messenger won’t be punished. VPO can also help mediate solutions that ultimate improve a project team’s ability to react quickly and correctly.


Thomas Swider, PMP

Tom’s interest in project management started while working at Primavera Systems in technical support for SureTrak Project Scheduler. Although mastering the intricacies of GANTT charts and resource leveling were challenging mental puzzles, Tom learned that there was a lot more to project management than the charts, and sought opportunities to work on and lead projects while working at Computer Sciences Corporation. He was able to act as project manager for both training and support desk projects.

He has been with Computer Aid, Inc. since 2004. His expertise in eLearning Project Management helped in the successful delivery of internal training courses and CAI University.

Tom holds a Master of Project Management degree from Keller Graduate School of Management, which was earned entirely as a virtual learner, completing his work while on buses, planes and hotel rooms. He earned his PMP credential in 2011, and is currently a consultant for CAI’s Virtual Project Office service offering.

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One Comment

  1. Excellent discussion ! Just to add my thoughts , if someone is wanting a a form , I came across a blank version here

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