The Startup
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The Startup

Can Blue-Green-Red Replace Red-Orange-Green for Product Managers?

One of the key tasks of a product manager is to keep track of multiple workstreams related to their product or feature. A project manager, a division manager and many other business managers find themselves in similar situations from time to time.

The Old Way

A common tool to track progress of all these workstreams is to use status indicators like the traffic signals. Green means everything is good. Yellow typically means that things are on the borderline and Red means things are alarmingly behind. Different teams and even different individuals have different thresholds about when to change the color.

In my opinion, the Red-Orange-Green system has considerable disadvantages:

  1. Negative Vibes: This system often leads to negative vibes in cross-functional teams. I have seen many arguments about whether things are really bad, as to deserve a Red, or just bad, so as to get a Yellow. Somehow, Yellow seems to be a comfortable haven of mediocrity. This vibe just adds to the factors that test the relationship between the product manager and other teams.
  2. Subjectivity: Good managers try to create some objective criteria, but how do you compare these two — a data science team that is a couple of days behind because they need another feature engineering iteration; vs. a digital marketing team that missed an important external world event, like the election, because it was a day or two behind in its workstream. Great managers handle the process well, but it takes a lot of intuition, judgment and pacification.
  3. Delays: The other problem with the Red-Orange-Green system is that most teams are just behind their deadlines. They are striving for the Yellow. People somehow think that Green is reserved for outperforming teams. Not everyone wants to be outperformer all the time in every project! Since the mean, by definition, is slightly behind on things, the project as a whole just moves slower than the plan. Prescient product managers often keep buffers to catch up.

The New Way

How about replacing the Red-Orange-Green statuses with Blue-Green-Red system? In this system all workstreams are Green by default. Green means generally on time. If a workstream falls back for some reason, they get a conversation with the product manager but not a change in status. The Red status is reserved for teams that are bottleneck for others — a team gets Red only if some other team is unable to continue its work because of it. On the other end, product managers can reward outperforming teams with a Blue status, indicating that these teams are ahead of the curve and could be role models.

The bottleneck criterion is very objective. Either someone else is waiting on you or not. In either system, nobody wants to be marked Red. In this system, however, Red is a big deal. It is a cause for escalation. It should be rare, and it should get attention from everyone.

The Blue-Green boundary is still a tad subjective. And that is fine. First, it gives the product manager a lot of leverage for recognition and trading favors. More importantly, the debates have a positive vibe. Instead of debating whether your workstream is slightly or disappointingly behind, you are debating whether you have done well enough to get special recognition. This has a positive vibe and leads to a constructive culture in the larger team.

In Blue-Green-Red system, teams try to be on time. They try to avoid the disastrous tag of being a bottleneck. At least not two times in a row. There also is a clear, positive incentive to outperform. It may seem very trivial — after all we are really changing colors only — but anecdotally I have seen this system increase the pace of the project.

Other People’s Problem

Many times when I introduce this idea to a new setting, I get a response that this system is not applicable to that setting. Apparently, the only Reds for them are due to external factors and the system works fine.

Here is the litmus test I propose for such situations — how many times does the product manager silently reset deadlines so that everything turns green?

In any project there are bound to be setbacks. Especially now, when artificial intelligence has become a bigger part of software development, there is an increased uncertainty. Most AI algorithms are unexplainable black-boxes. Often it means that despite getting everything right, the output is below the acceptable level in terms of accuracy. It takes a lot, for all workstreams, to drag that model to the finish line.

The best approach to manage such setbacks is not to shrug it away, but to take a constructive, positive approach. A Blue-Green-Red system may move you a step closer towards that.

Suggested Reading: Real World Hacks for Explainable AI

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Praful Krishna

Praful Krishna

AI, Product, Strategy, Digital Transformation