Possible misunderstandings with project status traffic lights and how to avoid them

Possible misunderstandings with project status traffic lights and how to avoid them

Glowing traffic light

Simple, concise, clear - For decades, a status traffic light (originating from the waterfall model) has been used for management boards to show how the project is doing. Like a traffic light, it is signaled whether the project is on schedule with "green", encounters obstacles with "yellow/orange" and whether the project goal has not been reached with "red". Seems easy at first – what can go wrong?

Meaning & interpretation of the status traffic light colors

The definition of the status lights in the introduction with "green = on schedule", "yellow/orange = at risk" and "red = project goal unattainable" is very flexible. What does that refer to exactly? On the project scope? The project deadline or just the next milestone?

And what is the color supposed to indicate? Is special management attention and support needed? Or can the project team deal with the challenges?

So that the traffic light status cannot be interpreted differently, it should be clearly defined with measurable acceptance criteria at the beginning of a project, recorded in writing and discussed with all stakeholders. A legend that can be adjusted if necessary if the project status changes is best. This means that the traffic light colors and the decisions linked to them can also be understood later.

The "color" is in the eye of the beholder

In Germany, around 4 million people¹ suffer from a red-green weakness (protanopia or deuteranopia) up to complete color blindness (achromasia) and it is estimated that up to 300 million people are affected worldwide². For genetic reasons, men are 11 times more likely to be affected than women. In the "worst-case" red-green are only perceived as different shades of gray.

Experience has shown that people with color blindness do not "come out" in management boards that are full of discussions. In the last project, for example, the program manager came to me after a meeting and asked that the traffic lights also be marked with RAG letters (Red, Amber, Green). The German color abbreviations don't help here because green and yellow would both be abbreviated with G.

To ensure that you take everyone with you from the start, you can symbolically expand the status lights as follows:

traffic light gradations

This extension has another advantage: if necessary, you can also print out the status report with a black and white printer.
Even if you see colors, it doesn't mean that everyone perceives them "in the same way". In 2015, a social media controversy erupted around the world when half claimed a dress was white and gold and the other half said it was blue and black. Read more

In addition, neuroscientists have found that 80% of sensory perception is triggered through the eyes. Color-sighted people are more influenced by colors than by gestures and words, and thus by the content that one wants to convey.³
Marketing plays with these effects, but one is not so aware of the project status. Or would you have thought that the red status could unconsciously trigger personal existential fears because the color red is associated with blood and danger?

Impact and Actions

Traffic light colors and topic prioritization are among the most important project management tools for project managers and product owners. Therefore, they should be used consciously, timed well and not mixed with each other. It is also important to be aware that reporting a certain project status can have further consequences.

A red status often leads to special management attention with follow-up meetings in which a "go-to-green" plan with possible measures must be presented. It is therefore advisable to only show a red status when the team has completed a complete problem root cause analysis and measures can be derived.

Experience has shown that a green status, on the other hand, can lead to resources being withdrawn from the project “because things are going well anyway”. You should then adjust the traffic light color depending on the situation.

Responding to problems with “greenwashing” is not recommended. A "melon green" status is published to make the status appear better than it actually is. This can have different reasons: reporting aggregations to a higher management level; or it may be evaluation, personality, or cultural. This becomes harmful for a company if it fails to initiate important measures in good time.

Conclusion: Even if you define a project status traffic light precisely, as recommended in the first section, the color may have to be adjusted depending on the external project environment influences mentioned here.

Can a status traffic light be dispensed with?

Statistically, the "planning security" and thus also the project traffic light is less precise, the larger and more complex a project is and the longer it lasts. A project status light in the initiation phase, for example, is not very meaningful due to the high level of planning uncertainty - especially if the project is large and takes a long time. In this initial phase, the status could be dispensed with.

In the agile environment, velocity is sometimes mistakenly used as a comparison value between projects instead of traffic light status, and this sometimes makes it unclear to management which projects or program areas require special measures.
The higher the reporting level in the hierarchy, the more traffic light status colors are recommended.

In summary, it can be said about the project traffic light status that at the beginning with three colors it seems easy to say clearly in which state the project is, but in the end the interpretation is a more complex task due to the different aspects listed.

Julia Radick


Julia Radick
Project manager