If you order a green project, you just might be served a watermelon. And you will have to wait for the end for the wine.

Years ago I attended a seminar that had quite an impact on me. The speaker was a Qantas pilot who was also a senior leader in their flight training centre. He spoke about the importance of safety and the many ways Qantas has carefully engineered their business systems to ensure that what they are always working towards is improved safety.

Beware the goal is not derailed by unintended consequences

One of the things that struck me about the pilot’s talk, was how important it was to choose the right metrics to measure. Any metrics put in place need to always support the overall safety goal, and not create unintended consequences.

A powerful example he shared was the reporting of safety incidents. Qantas was very deliberate about never setting management targets to reduce the number of safety incidents reported. A focus on reducing the number of incidents reported could well achieve that target, but in doing so risk a potential loss of visibility of incidents, that could then lead to a catastrophic safety failure.

I’ve been involved in technology projects for many years and it is very common to rate project health using a pretty self explanatory traffic light system – green means all tracking well, amber means some issues causing concern, and red projects require urgent attention.

When overseeing programs I have often thought about the Qantas pilot’s story. In my view, one of the most important elements in overseeing a successful program is transparency – ensuring that any and all issues can be heard and raised and that there is a culture of openness. Where problems can be shared by anyone involved and are heard and constructively workshopped.

To achieve this transparency, it’s important for leaders to set the tone to ensure that there is a safe place for sharing concerns and that bad news is always met with calm. If project managers fear reporting issues then they are less likely to report issues.

Watermelons are only green on the outside

I remember a conversation with a program leader some time ago who was concerned about a push in his organisation towards green projects. He was really worried that projects would end up reporting green but in reality they would be watermelons – green on the outside, and red in the middle. But there was nothing delicious about these watermelons. Sadly, what this leader feared came to pass – many projects turned green, but they didn’t get any healthier. And there was no wine to drink with the watermelon (I told you to wait for the end. We’re not there yet).

A talented project leader I have worked with taught me that red projects are a signal that urgent help and attention are needed. They’re not a cause of panic or a sign of failure. If your project needs urgent help to get back on track then it should be red.

As leaders, it is up to us to create an environment where those accountable for delivery are able to raise issues safely. The sooner they can raise serious issues and ask for help the more likely the issues can be resolved and the project can get back on track.


And now for the wine:


Colin Powell says it well:

“Bad news is not wine. It doesn’t improve with age”.


Happy Friday. I’m off to have that wine.