Tales Of A Muddled Metaphor: RAG Rage
Project organisations love traffic lights. The red, amber, green metaphors are almost hypnotic. It allows managers to distinguish between the good, bad, and ugly happening in a project.
The iconic coloured box, which is considered a chore to craft and interpret, extrapolate, extrapolate and interpolate words, is a miracle of straight-talking messaging.
Most project professionals have seen RAG statements that summarise everything, from project risk and health to KPI’s or budgetary rectitude.
I once used the 3-colour coding to a product list to indicate which features were certain to be delivered, which features had no chance, and which features were touch and go.
Stakeholders who signed up for Agile but were frustrated by my inability to guarantee the exact scope of our delivery, now lavish praises on me for the cogency and multi-colored statement of intent.
Although they were unable or unwilling to listen to my finely nuanced words they connected instinctively with the colours, so peace prevailed and they didn’t have to make any demands immediately.
Simple techniques based on easily applicable analogies are deceptively powerful.
Crude weapons lack safety catches and means of calibration. The same applies to traffic light tools, whose simplicity makes it easy for them to misfire when they are asked to communicate the more complex challenges of project work.
It is difficult to explain the impulsiveness with which the metaphor is used, given that even a brief history of traffic lights in the physical world does not reveal any primordial logic.
An enlightening history
The palette of the first street traffic lights was derived from British railroads, which used red, green and blue flags, semaphores, and lamps for signalling.
The big players gathered to discuss safety in January 1841, when they were confronted with a Parliamentary investigation into multiple accident.
Henry Booth, Liverpool and Manchester Railway, argued for standard hand signals and colour schemes. Red for danger, white to ensure safety and green for “proceed with caution.”
In contrast, in the early days for the automobile in the US many stop signs were yellow instead of red. This was because it was difficult to see a stop sign at night in an area with poor lighting.
William Potts, a Detroit traffic officer, created a three-color signal in 1920. This was an improvement on the previous signals that only had red and green lights. The three-color signal was standardized in the United States by the mid-1930s.
Even today, the meanings of red lights at intersections vary depending on context and country. This is evident by the many turn left on red rules in right-hand driving territories, including Germany, where the issue became hot. It’s best to avoid Japan’s notorious blue Go lights.
Traffic lights, like their metaphorical counterparts in the metaphor, only mean what they are supposed to. Red does not always mean STOP, and amber can be used to indicate that it’s safe to proceed. Both in China and Thailand, amber light are so misinterpreted by road users that countdowns have been introduced.
Why is it that RAG statuses in the project world have a universal meaning? Some might even say oven-ready? We often apply them without much explanation or formality.
Some organisations acknowledge the limitations of a simple RAG system by adopting a fourth, yellow status to bear the burden of subtle distinctions between green and amber that is being perceived by their diligent PMO’s.
Red should be used. This is something I have done on several occasions.