Oops!

The Project Manager eyed me nervously now. The confidence in his ability to bulldoze his way through the meeting had just evaporated. We'd been having a one-to-one review of the project. He didn't even want to be there. In his rush to get through the meeting he let himself ramble, and when I quizzed him about the status report with Amber status on his component RAG for Benefits he went into full rant. Then he slipped up and said something he desperately wanted to take back.
I leaned forwards. "The benefits don't match reality? That's interesting. Tell me more."

And it was that simple. The benefits estimated over a year ago were not likely to be realised to the extent they had hoped. It's not like a great crime had been committed. The PM in front of me wasn't even the person that had made the estimations. He'd inherited the business case and, to be fair to him, had delivered the project quite well so far. But then, this was the first time he'd received any real scrutiny.

"It's okay. All you need to do is report the Benefits component as Red, and start on the Change Request to update the Business Case and the benefits we're tracking."
He relaxed. "Okay."
"But you will also have to set the Project status to Red." He tensed up again.
"Why?" he spluttered.
"Reporting guidelines. They say a single Red component makes the project Red." Of course he hadn't read the guidelines. Nobody had. Why should they? Everyone thought they knew what it should say.
"It's disproportionate to say the whole project is Red."
"Really? The business is investing in this project for the benefits listed. Not some of the benefits. If it was your money, wouldn't you think it was Red?" I'd had this conversation enough times. It goes back and forth until you produce the Entrepreneur Argument. It tends to kill the debate, but I knew that what troubled the PM was not the Change Control process, but was just the implications of going Red.

The business, and I'll not name names, claimed to have a transparent and tolerant culture. But the moment you report anything as Red, basically, you get beaten up for it. Rather than engage to see how to help and resolve the issues, the senior team would spend their time questioning whether the PM was doing their job properly. Meetings would take place with (very) raised voices. PMs would leave the meeting with faces as red as their reports, sometimes in tears. Their confidence crushed and energy drained, eventually their performance – and sometimes their health – deteriorated.

The result was an approach by project managers that involved providing misleading reports, making over-confident statements of the projects likely outcomes. The plan was to somehow keep going until the hidden troubles became inevitably visible. Better to have pain later than today. This manifested in go-live milestones switching from Green to Red on the week they are due. Costs going from Green to Red the week Finance does it's annual review. Benefits staying Green until the project is delivered and PM is on their next job, a nasty surprise waiting for anyone that decides to do a post implementation review. A whole change directorate out of control, with everyone at the top in ignorance and everyone at the bottom in denial. All because senior managers don't understand that Red doesn't mean always incompetent, lazy or dishonest. It often just means "help".

Written by Stuart Taylor

Born and raised in Walsall, West Midlands; currently living in Buckinghamshire; career in project management; runs a lot but isn't getting any slimmer...

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