Project Planning Approach
Insight

Starting At Code Red: Put Out Fires Before They Start

The typical approach to project planning is to start off every project with a code green status, meaning everything is going well. As teams progress through each month of the project and encounter challenges—whether associated with people, circumstances, or budgets—the status changes from green to yellow. When challenges persist or expand, the project goes into crisis and the status changes to red.

Unless you’re able to turn the project around at this point, it is essentially a failure. But it takes an enormous amount of effort, energy, and budget to turn that foundering project around. Relationships are damaged, trust is lost, and you may have to delay or forego valuable opportunities.

What’s the Fix?

In the course of our experience—having run complex, global projects for over 15 years—we have found that the kind of challenges that turn a project status from green to red aren’t uncovered by the typical, rational planning process. Instead, those challenges stem from variables that people have felt intuitively but have not generally identified and articulated during the planning phase.

Code Red is a response to this challenge and involves flipping the practice of how projects are planned and executed. Instead of starting a project with a status of green, then going to red, and finally exerting a tremendous amount of resources in order to get back to green, we start every project off with a red status. We say, “Let’s plan on project success but let’s also think about all the rational and irrational concerns, fears, uncertainties, and doubts we have even before the project begins. Let’s figure out a mitigation plan so that if we hit any of those scenarios, we can immediately trigger the actions necessary to meet those challenges.”

Aligns Team Energy to Project Needs:

If you start off with a project status of red, your goal at the start of the project—when everyone has the highest levels of energy, optimism, and enthusiasm—is all applied in how you get that project from a red to a green status. It maps well to the emotional energy of the team. Ultimately, you are saying, “Let’s scramble up front. Let’s solve for this now, and then we can take it easier at the end.” By the end of the project when the energy starts to dwindle, you’re already in a great place.

Gives the Team Optimism at the Right Moment:

Projects are like wars. Project challenges are its battles, and optimism is most needed at later junctures when morale is most vulnerable. When you’re six months in and you see another mistake that delays the project, necessitating an all-nighter, it is hard to muster the energy to tackle problems with sufficient vigor and hope. If, on the other hand, one starts from a place of urgency, going from red to orange to yellow to green, optimism regarding project success can only build over time.

Manages Stakeholder and Client Expectations:

Code Red is fantastic at managing expectations of stakeholders and clients. Even if you hit unfortunate circumstances for which you may not have planned, your clients are not likely to be surprised because you have already talked about every possible scenario. They’re much more likely to be collaborative. Everyone is in a problem-solving rather than a finger-pointing mode, and the energy of the group is directed in moving forward as opposed to feeling beaten by circumstance.

Improves Overall Quality:

This project planning practice also improves quality of output by allowing more response time. For example, in a digital project, the engineering bits come at the very end. You’ve done research, strategy, UX, and design and by the time the engineers get started on their part, you might only have 30 days left before the launch date. If they encounter obstacles or need to make changes, things become dire. If those challenges were uncovered at the inception of the project, the engineering team would have had 6 months to figure out a solution.

More Focus and Urgency:

When a project is Code Red, there is increased focus and urgency. Harnessing the team’s instinctual reaction to a perceived threat staves off complacency and triggers the muscles necessary to get you from red to green. Code Red drives change whereas the typical project process engages a maintenance mentality. It is the difference between preserving the status quo and moving the needle.

At BeyondCurious, starting projects at Code Red helps us align contingency planning to team energy level, gives us optimism when we need it, and vastly increases quality of output while on the way to the finish line. Contact us to learn more about how a Code Red mindset can help your organization.

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