Traffic lights don’t work
Effective performance metrics depend on a healthy culture and communication
“No one will ever use red” is always the first comment at the start of every product launch kickoff when discussing how the team will report performance status. Followed immediately by laughter, the second response. And both will probably be the most honest and genuine communications in the launch process from then on out until approval.
Whether it is the launch of a pharmaceutical product, an implementation of a new technology platform, or the integration of two companies, organizations have been utilizing the traffic light approach for decades when reporting project status. Color-coded readiness deliverables at pre-identified points in time organize, prioritize, and reduce the risk of not achieving key strategic objectives. Whether utilizing traffic light signal colors or the words that define them, signals are required and need to be defined, socialized, and, actually used.
What are traffic-light metrics and why do they matter?
Traffic light colors are simple and universally understood. Drivers know the three standard colors on traffic lights allow vehicles to proceed safely through intersections and cross streets. Green means ‘go’, yellow means ‘slow down’ (unless you are in the state of NJ), and red means ‘stop’.
This color-coding approach is used in many fields, from road intersections, to airport departure boards, terrorist threat levels, factory production lines, hospital occupancy, and even the healthiness of prepackaged food. When launching pharmaceutical products, traffic lights provide a simple and clear way to quickly convey the launch status to stakeholders. Green means ‘on track’, yellow means ‘at risk of going off track’ and red means ‘off track’ and needs attention quickly.
Why is red the loneliest color?
Patients quickly answer physicians’ questions about pain using the intuitive 1-10 pain scale. And everyone understands the purpose of the ‘check engine’ light in their car’s dashboard or the red ‘low gas’ message. Yet using traffic light colors, particularly the color red, to measure launch readiness evokes a different reaction. And, it prompts a counterintuitive behavior, which is rarely using ‘red’ or not using it at all.
One reason for this is ambiguous definitions, leaving their interpretations up to the users with the assumption they know what the colors mean. For example, many teams note milestones or deliverables as green since they are confident they can complete it by the agreed-upon deadline. However, when it is 30 days to launch, and a deliverable generally takes more than that timeframe to complete, coupled with multiple go-to-market priorities, designating a deliverable as ‘green’ is inaccurate. Though this may seem like an obvious example of something that should be considered ‘red’, human nature guides us to apply our own perspectives including how confident we are in our ability to get something back on track within prescribed time frames.
Another reason is that team members may be reluctant to use the color red since they perceive ‘red’ may reflect poorly on their job performance. If their project is off track, does that mean that their launch team members will think they are not doing a good job? And/or that their manager will perceive their performance at professional performance review time is off track as well?
So how do we remove these barriers?
It is not difficult. It requires a disciplined but not complicated approach including the creation of team norms and definition of colors before kicking off the launch. The result is worth it – key stakeholders trust the readiness colors and are confident that there are “no surprises” since they are provided genuine status at specific scheduled time points. The approach I take includes:
- Aligning with stakeholders regarding the definition of each traffic light color prior to kicking off the launch. This includes defining the colors with specific examples and reinforcement so that use of the red color metric is not construed as being punitive. The converse — not raising concerns — is much more concerning.
- Communicating traffic light definitions at the launch kick-off meeting and training new launch team members upon point of entry
- Establishing and fostering healthy team norms during the kick-off meeting. Team norms, including trust and accountability, are created and agreed upon, and may include mantras such as ‘we win together as a team” and “communicate early so there are no surprises and we can pivot and course correct effectively.”
Defining traffic light colors and establishing a culture that supports accurate metrics will help ensure your team is set up for success. Let me know what your best practices are!
- Published in Articles, Blog, Commercial, Resource Center