"red/yellow/green" system… maybe-proof your organization

So it’s 11 p.m. at night and I am up rocking our new baby to sleep, as he’s a bit confused about the difference between day and night.

As I was rocking, I’ve beenĀ  reading Seth Godin’s book: small is the new big: and 183 other riffs, rants, and remarkable business ideas. It’s a collection of Godin’s blog entries that he decided to publish once he reached one thousand entries.

I came across one that got me thinking about the Wild Salmon Policy – yeah apologies, another suggestion or two for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and/or the politicians that bring about political will for change.

See, back in the late 1990s I caught wind of this innovative new policy that DFO would be introducing. It would change the way wild salmon were managed on the West Coast. This was not long after the years of “zero mortality” on coho. In the mid to late 1990s, coast-wide in BC, coho declines had a lot of people more agitated than members of parliament exposing another ‘scandal’ – so a zero mortality policy was adopted and all coho caught were to be released.

(side note: I’d be curious to see stats from that year on seals, sea lions, and orcas that simply hung around sport fishing boats and fishing lodges and gorged themselves on the ‘catch-and-release’ coho that were released and either floated belly up or began sinking to the bottom. Next best thing than just having salmon injected intravenously.)

(not to mention the number of coho that accidentally landed in the back of pick up trucks near sunset…)

In 2000 and 2001 I began to hear a lot more about the Wild Salmon Policy. At that time I took on a contract with one of the larger environmental organizations in BC. My job was “Gumboot Campaigner” and I was to meet with community organizations around the Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland and organize an active voice, which would then be coordinated to affect how and when the Wild Salmon Policy would be implemented.

Estimates at that time suggested that somewhere in the neighborhood of 200,000 people around BC were active in salmon-related projects – from streamkeeper organizations to weekend creek clean-up efforts. Regardless of the number; it’s significant. The Gumboot Army – as they were, or have been, labelled. (I’ll write more about this in future postings).

So it’s now the sunset of the first decade of the 2000s. In a little over a week we will be into 2010. The Wild Salmon Policy is still not fully, or effectively implemented in BC. Over a decade of consultation, changing (aka bickering) governments, watering-down, beefing-up, strategizing, visioning, brainstorming, break-out groups, PowerPoint, spreadsheets, lost agendas, and enter other bureaucratic bumblings [here].

Godin has a great little riff that could shift things… “maybe-proofing your organization”. The strategy is the “red/yellow/green system”. Godin explains it like this:

Is it possible to manufacture little emergencies so that everyone in an organization has to say yes or no? Is it possible to create … decision situations when, simply sitting there inertly isn’t an option? It is possible to create a “maybe-proof” organization.

Some of the best project management that I’ve ever seen has happened in companies that use the “red/yellow/green” system. It’s based on a very simple, very visible premise: Every single person in the division of a company that’s launching a major new initiative [or policy] has to wear a button to work every day. Wearing a green button announces that you’re on the critical path. It tells everyone that the stuff that you’re doing is essential to the product’s launch – that you’re a priority. If you don a yellow button, you’re telling your coworkers that you’re on the periphery of the project, but that you have an important job nonetheless. And wearing a red button sends the signal that you have an important job that’s not related to the project.

When someone with a green button shows up, all bets are off. Green buttons are like the flashing lights on an ambulance, or the requests of a surgeon in an operating room: “This is a life-or-death path,” green buttons say, “and you’d better have a damn good reason if you’re going to slow me down.” When a person wearing a yellow or red button meets up with someone wearing a green button, that person understands that it’s time to make a decision: “How can I help this green button get on with the critical job?” Or, at the very minimum, “How can I get out of the way?”

Of course, people can change their button color every day, or even several times during the course of a meeting. But once you adopt the button approach to project management, several things immediately become clear: First, any company that hesitates to make people wear buttons because it’s worried about hurting employees’ feelings isn’t really serious about the project – or about creating a culture in which decisions get made. In fact, if you duck the buttons, you’ll just keep ducking other decisions. Second, folks don’t like wearing red buttons: They’ll work very hard to find a way to contribute so that they can wear a green button. And there are plenty of people who are totally delighted to wear a yellow button. Third, the CEOs, project leaders, and team leaders can quickly learn a lot about who’s accomplishing what inside of a company.

Godin asks: “Would it make you take an important – if painful – look at your own decision-making style if you were issued a button each day that signaled your decision-making readiness?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *