How to Report the Status of a Problem Project

“The project status is…. white.”

I sat with a former coaching client this morning to catch up with what’s going on his world. He told me about a major project at his company that is about a year behind schedule. Yet when the top-level leader in his part of the organization reported up to the CEO on the status of the project, he didn’t say the status was red. To the leader’s credit he didn’t say it was green. But he also didn’t say yellow. The project status is white.

For the record, that company doesn’t have an official project status of white.  So, I asked my former coaching client, what did white mean?

He didn’t hear the intended meaning but the joke internally was “White Hot! Hotter than Red!”

Though I don’t know in this situation, I’ve seen it all too often on struggling projects…. There is likely all kinds of project spin going on. I can imagine the leader saying, “The project is white because we’re looking into some factors and cannot accurately assess the status. We’ll get back to you.”  Interpretation: “This project is so screwed up that if we really told you the truth we would all get fired so we’re busy figuring out who to blame and when we have that information, we’ll get back to you.”

Later today I’m interviewing Justin Menkes, author of Better Under Pressure: How Great Leaders Bring Out The Best in Themselves and Others. Justin found in his research that the best leaders–those who thrived under pressure and were able to maximize the potential of themselves and those around them–exhibited the attribute of realistic optimism. That is similar to Sir John Templeton’s first rule of creating wealth: “To achieve success, be neither an optimist nor a pessimist, but a realist with a hopeful nature.”

We can pretend a project is going OK, even though it’s not. We can slather lipstick on that pig, put some pearls around its neck and proclaim it a beauty. But it’s a pig nonetheless. Games get played with project status all the time (such as, “schedule chicken“). But as Colin Powell observes, “Bad news is not like fine wine–it doesn’t get better over time.”

Rick Morris told me over lunch last week that he instructed once by a boss that he could not show red for a project status. The problem is that the project was in trouble. How did Rick handle this? Did he go along with the game and just say green, hoping that it will all work out? Or did he whip out a new status of white?

Rick told me, “I didn’t show up for the meeting.”

Once we know what reality is, we can come up with ways to manage it. A key responsibility of a leader is to understand reality and then marshal the best minds around them to develop a plan to create a vision and path to a new reality. That can certainly be easy to talk about and much more challenging to execute. Let’s face it: political waters are full of sharks and shipwrecks.

But painting the ship white and calling it seaworthy when the hull is breached, hoping that enough bailing will keep us afloat, is a recipe for project disaster.

P.S. Our keynote Lipstick on a Pig: How Illusion Leads to Crisis goes into these ideas more fully can help you and your organization improve your ability to deliver projects successfully.

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