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How to make stoplight status grading more powerful
Stoplight grading (🔴🟡🟢) is widely used to communicate status, but has a hidden risk: what if something important suddenly changes from 🟢 to 🔴, without warning?
Many managers fear that someone will be cruising along, showing 🟢 consistently, all is well—and then suddenly, one of the key WIPs will flip red, too late to do anything about it. And now there is a bigger problem to deal with. Ugh!
This understandably sucks for those on the receiving end of updates.
I want to share a powerful practice that I learned from Alan Albert—passed on from a CEO he worked with—to enhance stoplight grading. It's a simple agreement that enhances the communication and trust in a culture.
The agreement is this: nothing is allowed to flip from green to red. It must go through yellow first. Flipping straight to red would trigger for a serious conversation. Why? Because “going yellow” is a good thing—the rule is there to help the person reporting. This triggers a “how can I help you succeed” moment, not a “you screwed up” moment.
Why? What's the big deal? Some will find this overly rigid.
To me, going from green to red suddenly implies one of four things, from most to least concerning:
(1) The person reporting was hiding the truth
(2) The person reporting was disconnected from reality
(3) The person wildly misinterpreted reality
(4) We all misinterpreted reality, or the world changed unpredictably
In the first, the person knew that things weren't okay, and hid this. This is the most serious case and merits a serious 1:1 talk.
In the second, the person was asleep at the wheel, and not living up to their responsibility.
In the third, the person's interpretation, analysis, or plan was way off base.
The fourth just happens. It's hopefully being addressed by a continuous, ongoing learning cadence at all levels of the org (retros, pre/post-mortems, etc).
The first two are the most serious because they are signals of the person's character. The third is more of a skills gap issue. The last is just the messy, unpredictable world we live in, and is more of a team-level conversation.
Two essential caveats about using this practice:
(1) This practice is only healthy in a supportive culture. This is not to be used punitively or for micromanagement. What "good" looks like here is that if something goes yellow, it is a good thing! It’s a positive thing for everyone’s benefit, not a fearful pathway to termination. That is a cue for managers to talk with their team members, stay connected, and to see how they can help, what can be done. In a healthy culture, something going to yellow is not a cue for managers to step in, take control, micromanage, or punish someone. Do not weaponize this practice.
(2) This is for the big things we're working on, the key work in progress items or big deliverables. Do not overuse this tactic by applying it to every nitpicking detail or metric. That will just drive everyone nuts.