Green Shifting

The following entry is a part of the Pattern Library. The Pattern Library records the common patterns of events that have the potential to lead to project failure.

Name : Green Shifting
Type :
Behavioral pattern (patterns that influence the actions or conduct of an individual or team)

In brief :
The tendency to report project status in positive terms despite growing indications that serious problems exist.

Description :
Green shifting refers to the suppression of bad news in project status reports or the use of euphemisms to help make problems look less significant than they really are.  The term reflects the tendency of projects to shift from the red or yellow end of the status spectrum towards the green side in an effort to make the project look healthier than it really is.

The practice of green shifting is rarely done maliciously, instead it reflects poor judgment or the sense that problems can be resolved without attracting the glare of management intervention.  The negative side of the practice is that if often allows problems to grow ever larger without management being aware a problem even exists.  While such projects often appear to progress smoothly, the accumulated affect of the problems can cause the project to nose dive into trouble in its later stages.  The nosedive often catches management unaware as they had only received positive reports up to that point.

Typical sequence of events :

  1. Some form of significant problem(s) exist within the project
  2. Status reports suppress the bad news from surfacing and reflect a positive or relatively positive status
  3. Overtime the problems accumulate and grow worse
  4. Eventually the accumulated effect of problems is undeniable and the Project is forced to go from Green status to red with no prior warning.

Negative effects :

  1. Problems are allowed to grow in the background without being addressed.  Cost to correct problems once they become undeniable is considerably higher than had they been addressed earlier
  2. Management receives a false impression of the project’s true status thereby suppressing effective decision making at the senior levels

Common Root Causes :

  1. Failure to recognise the project’s true status
  2. An unwillingness to deliver bad news
  3. The sense that things aren’t so bad and that the project team will be able to resolve the problems internally
  4. The tendency for bad news to be suppressed as status is filtered through different levels of management
  5. The fear that bringing up issues will simply add more work to an already busy schedule.

Suggested Actions :

  1. For those giving status –
    1. Focus on open and honest evaluations of project status
    2. Avoid giving sudden surprises, wherever possible give early warning of potential issues
  2. For those receiving the status –
    1. Avoid shooting the messenger
    2. Be supportive of the professional opinion of the project manager or those giving the report rather than dismissive.  Encourage open communications
    3. Find ways to offer support rather than simply dumping all issues back on the Project Manager.  Work towards a supportive and open relationship
    4. If green shifting is suspected ask the difficult questions and probe deeper than the written words on the report

Reference – Idea of “Green Shifting” was first formally published in Dr Dobbs Magazine – S. Ambler.