As we move through the process of change we typically are involved in evaluating and reporting progress on change initiatives, with the goal of making sure others are informed and can take appropriate action to help initiatives succeed.
One of the most common approaches to status reporting is to compile a “dashboard” that includes ratings of progress and risks in a number of areas using a color-coded indication of red (high risk), yellow (moderate risk), and green (low risk). This has the advantage of being visually simple and straightforward—it’s easy to scan the big picture and see where things are going well and where they are off track.
There are some basic challenges in using a system such as this. There’s often a lot of information conveyed. Comprehending it all, much less synthesizing the data into a deep understanding of the situation, can be difficult. Among other things, this tends to lead us to over-focus on the items that are coded as red.
This, in turn, creates a challenge in getting project teams to raise “red” issues; they know these ratings will draw attention, and there’s a possibility that the team members will be on the receiving end of judgment and blame. There's an expectation in some cultures that it is the job of the change agent to keep everything green, and that they have failed in some way when a significant problem arises. Some organizations have taken this on directly, and seek to cultivate a “red is good” culture that helps project teams develop a norm of reporting problems early, and encourages sponsors to be receptive to that information and avoid “shooting the messenger.”
A further side effect of the standard status reporting system, and the tendency to focus on “red” ratings, can be the emergence of an unspoken implication that sponsors only need to pay attention when there are problems; that they can disengage and ignore the rest of the process and take for granted all the things that are going well. As I’ve said elsewhere, I believe that it’s critically important for sponsors to involve themselves in understanding what’s going right and how they can lift and accelerate the positive forces that are in motion.
Enter the I Ching
I want to suggest that there's actually a deeper issue here, which is our underlying belief about the nature of reality, and the idea that we can classify things into “good/bad” so simply. Here’s a somewhat humorous depiction of this issue from an old fable.
While we typically think in terms of predictability and causality, there are other ways to see the universe. The I Ching is an ancient Chinese system of understanding the world. Everything that happens in heaven and earth is seen as being in a constant state of transition. One key element of this system is the idea of yin & yang—that seemingly opposing forces form an integrated whole ☯️, and that as one end of a polarity becomes stronger, it gives rise to its opposite. Deep rest begets movement, bright light moves toward dark, expansion inevitably moves toward contraction.
Consider the possibility that everything that at first seems problematic has in it the seeds of possibility, while everything that seems beneficial has in it the seeds of difficulty. As we apply this to organizational change, it suggests some issues to consider in our approach to understanding and reporting project status. At a minimum, the red/yellow/green system implies a level of certainty about how things will unfold. This may give us a false sense of clarity and even comfort, especially early in a project when there is actually a high level of ambiguity, and in transformational projects where it’s not only natural, but also desirable, for things to be in flux. More insidiously, however, because our attention is naturally drawn to the things we have framed as issues and problems, we may miss emerging themes and trends that we should be paying attention to.
Implications for Practice
If you’re using a system similar to the red/yellow/green one I’ve described, or otherwise focusing most of your attention on barriers in your status reporting, here are some things to consider:
Take into account the possibility that in reality almost everything is constantly shifting and unfolding—if you had to give an honest color to it, it would be yellow. Instead of complex dashboards that give an illusion of clarity, do the hard work of synthesizing your understanding of the situation into fewer issues and themes that can drive deeper conversation.
Make it a practice to dig underneath things that look “green” to see the hidden dangers or problems that may be emerging, and underneath the things that seem “red” to recognize the hidden opportunities.
Here are some questions to get you thinking about how you’re approaching status reporting.
To what extent does our project status reporting rely on red/yellow/green ratings to convey progress?
In what ways is our status reporting process beneficial, and in what ways is it limiting?
How do we ensure that we are having the right discussions with project sponsors?
How can we dig beneath the surface to find hidden opportunities in turbulent situations, and potential dangers in seemingly calm areas?
Here is a simple interpretation of this:1
The Power of the Great. Perseverance furthers. The hexagram points to a time when inner worth mounts with great force and comes to power…there is a danger that one may rely entirely on one’s power and forget to ask what is right. There is danger too that, being intent on movement, we may not wait for the right time. Therefore the added statement that perseverance furthers. For that is truly great power which does not degenerate into mere force but remains inwardly united with the fundamental principles of right and of justice. When we understand this point—namely, that greatness and justice must be indissolubly united—we understand the true meaning of all that happens in heaven and on earth.
I hope you have enjoyed this installment of Organizational Change Intersections! See you in a couple of weeks.