Melon traffic lights
Almost anyone who has ever worked in large authorities or companies is likely to have encountered them: Watermelon projects. Derived from the widespread status lights (green = everything on schedule, yellow = there are problems, red = nothing running anymore), this term describes projects that look green from the outside but are red from the inside. How something like this could look like I was once allowed to experience in a large company: In a subproject, traffic lights were hanging on a wall for the various measured values. In time, in scope, in budget and so on. Every single one of them was red, but the traffic light above for the overall state was surprisingly yellow. A similar picture emerged in the overall project management – the traffic lights of almost all sub-projects were yellow, while those for the overall project were green. The reason why this obvious contradiction was simply accepted could be read in the communication management plan: according to it, a status could be moved up one level if corrective measures were “initiated”. Mind you, not successful, not even realistic or target-oriented, it was enough if they were initiated, whatever that meant. Because of this rule of communication, project sponsors were shown a green light at every meeting, even though the truth was standstill and chaos. And stories like these exist in surprisingly many large organizations.
At this point, almost every observer asks himself the same question: doesn’t it come to mind at some point that people are boldly lying, and aren’t the responsible managers made a head shorter? The answer is both yes and no, because here another phenomenon comes into play – the looser card. And in order to explain it, you have to go back a bit. In large projects, the number of employees is rarely static; rather, employees and managers are exchanged again and again from the lowest level upwards. Especially at the top this is probable, because those who manage to keep their project (apparently) green over a longer period of time, are recommended for higher tasks and are promoted. By the time the oath of revelation of the project’s failure has to be taken, the management team has often already undergone several changes. Basically, one could regret this position to the manager who is in charge especially when “the outside of the melon turns red”, because his career is now being damaged. He has drawn the “Looser card”, even if the fatal development should have begun long before him. In reality, however, he often only gets away with a few scratches on his career, because right now the Looser card comes into play.
All managers from the later project phases can now claim that the situation would have already proceeded when they arrived. They had worked and fought heroically to prevent worse, and this could even be proven: especially the status reports corrected upwards were proof that countermeasures had been initiated constantly (and only because of them everything had not collapsed much earlier). The managers from the early project phases can, of course, oppose this: at their time all status reports would have been green, everything would have gone as planned and at the time of their departure they would have left an orderly house behind. For what would have happened afterwards, they couldn’t do anything. Ultimately, these defense strategies lead to no one being found to blame. Neither can you prove to some that everything went wrong in their day, nor can you prove that others found something other than an unrecoverable condition. Both have secured themselves and somewhere between them there is now a responsibility gap, in which the Looser card disappears, which the top management would have so gladly pushed somewhere. The Looser card.
A hopeless situation? Not quite. One could at least try for the future to prevent this from happening again, for example by working on making the project status more realistic and verifiable. But then you would have to live with the fact that it can turn yellow and red much earlier – and high managers love the colour green much too much for that. It suddenly becomes clear to many that watermelons are not so bad – so things continue as before.