We can tell when the use of a RAG status is going to be ineffective – when the statuses haven’t been defined. If we don’t give definitions to what red, amber, and green mean then things can start to unravel later on. In this post I suggest three ways a RAG status can be misused if they aren’t given clear definitions and share some thoughts on defining them.
Green: the mask
Everything’s green! There’s nothing to worry about! This is great for when we want to hide information from our superiors. That is until we realise everything really has gone down the pan, and now need to report a critical issue without any prior warning – shock and frustration all round.
Amber: the safe bet
Then there’s amber, our nice little cushion. By saying things are amber, we can avoid any difficult questions on why things aren’t going well but also keep “we told you so” in our back pocket for if things start to go south. Some items stay amber for their entire lifetime… meaning we never actually got any useful information about their status.
Red: the political lever
Look over here! All these items are red! I need more time / people / money. By inflating the size of risks or issues we’ve got everyone’s attention and taken the resource we’ve needed to build our empire! Except now we don’t know what to do with it, or worse, we’ve taken resource away from areas that do have genuine issues that are masked as green or defaulted to amber.
RAG falls down when there isn’t a shared understanding of what red, amber, and green means. It gives room for manipulation and confusion, and doesn’t end with everyone being aligned on where we’re at.
Instead, we can take some time upfront to define what each colour represents in a way that makes sense for our context. It’s important though that the definitions themselves don’t introduce ambiguity.
- Green: on track
- Amber: off track
- Red: high risk of failing
Everyone might have a similar ideas about what “on track” means but what does “off track” mean? This becomes subjective and different people may have different ideas about how big an issue or risk needs to be before a work item might be considered off track.
Instead, suppose we have the below:
- Green: there are no current blockers
- Amber: there is a blocker but we have a way forward to resolve the blocker
- Red: there is a blocker and we don’t yet know how to resolve it
In some contexts the above may work better – the item in question either is progressing or has something blocking progress and we either know how to resolve it or we don’t. Anyone can determine the status by simply asking “is there a blocker?” and “do we have a path to resolving the blocker?”. This allows us to keep people accountable for the correct status, and makes it clear to everyone where more attention and/or support needs to be given.
Usable definitions will vary by context, but whatever the context, the definitions shouldn’t introduce ambiguity, everyone should agree, and item owners should be held accountable for the status.
Whether RAG is the best way to manage and communicate status is a bigger question, but if it is used, it’s key that there is shared understanding so anyone looking at the status understands what state the work item is in (and can then intervene when and only when it makes sense!).
Do you use RAG statuses? What definitions do you use?