Make Priorities Clear with Green, Yellow, and Red

Harvard Business Review

Boards, managements, and employees waste far too much time due to a lack of clarity in conveying and sharing what it is they are trying to accomplish. The basic task of defining goals and keeping score is so critical, yet not accomplished frequently or consistently enough. Even when we think we're communicating well, our perception of the clarity and impact of our message often outstrips the reality. Are your people nodding with understanding, or are they nodding with the look of a dog in front of the television?

Try this exercise: ask two or three board members or employees what the top three priorities are for the company. Then ask them the underlying activities or metrics best used to measure those priorities. See how consistent the responses are — or are not.

How to do better? You need first to commit to setting your top priorities, tasks and metrics [the content]. Once that is done, you need to commit to the using the most impactful possible means — usually with a strong visual element — to communicate those items [the form]. It's simple: Prioritize, then visualize.

1. Prioritize. Be crystal clear on your top three to five goals. Fewer than three likely means you are not driving hard enough. More than five means you are diluting yourself and others. After that, establish the critical tasks required to achieve those goals AND identify the right metrics and benchmarks to know if you are getting there. Priority-setting is not enough if it lacks concrete and common measurement yardsticks, because people end up having divergent visions of success.

2. Visualize. The output of a process of priority setting, task management, and benchmarking often becomes so complex that it hampers effectiveness. Ironically, the proliferation of new management and measurement tools can make things worse. These tools usually are built on the assumption that all users are similarly competent and diligent in inputting, sharing, and reviewing data. How often do you really read and digest the "number reports" and "task updates" you receive? That's why I rely more on a very basic system: Green, Yellow, Red, or GYR.

No joke — I have painted my business world green, yellow, and red. From simple task lists and project activity updates to scorecards for financial performance, everything is coded in green, yellow, and red. Most of the time, these are in Excel. Because of the ease in which they can be created and understood, I use them as my most frequent management communication tool. The easier something is to visualize and digest, the more likely it is to be understood and used, and few things can be easier than green, yellow, and red.

GYR task sheets sort the most critical information with simple GYR status — green meaning good, yellow watch-out, and red alert. You probably already knew that, of course. Our minds are well-trained to understand what those colors mean.

Here is an example of a typical task sheet/project plan without GYR:

Tjan1.png

Here is the same in GYR form:

Tjan 2.png

That makes the priorities a bit clearer, doesn't it? Or look at the flash report card that we use to measure the progress of a retail business in which we are invested (the numbers have been changed):

Tjan 3.png

This is an overall scorecard that the CEO uses to measure progress against her number one priority. The organization is clear, first with the metric (revenue per square foot, year-over-year growth, etc.), followed by the benchmark (researched across the industry), and finally the stores' performance.

Perhaps the greatest value of GYR management is that it allows you to really do exception-based management. As humans we like to focus at least as much on what is going well as what is going badly — which plays out in overly comprehensive updates to our teams and managers. GYR forces you to focus instantly on things that are not on track. It's a system and process to acknowledge the good stuff, but spend the majority of the organization's time on the things requiring work. It also encourages more frequent interactions and transparency across the organization.

We are in an era where we are overwhelmed with information and underwhelmed with insight. GYR encourages a discipline of high-quality communications defined by simplicity, relevancy, frequency, and transparency — the path to insight.

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