Collins’ Red Flags
— By Vasiliy Ivanov, CEO of KeepSolid.
Foreword. This article was to be my speech at the next meeting for project managers of our company. But, since this topic is close to the idea of this blog, I will try to kill two birds with one stone. Therefore, dear colleagues, read it! We’ll discuss this later 😉
In his book From Good to Great, J. Collins described a system of “red flags” designed to alert you of any unexpected events. I want to quote a part from his book:
Let me illustrate this with an example from my personal life. When I was reading the Case-method course at Stanford’s Business School, I gave the MBA students bright red paper sheets 24×45 cm2, and the following instructions: “This is your “red flag” for the quarter. If you raise it, I’ll stop the lecture and will give you the floor. There are no limits to either when or why raise the “red flag”, it’s entirely up to you. You can use this to share your experience, disagree with the instructor, ask a question to a business owner invited to give a lecture, answer a fellow student, make an offer, and so on. But the “flag” can only be used once a quarter. You cannot transfer a “red flag” to another student.”
With these “flags” I could never know what would happen in the lecture room the next day. Once, a student raised a “red flag” to say: “Professor Collins, it seems to me that today you did not read very well. You lead the discussion by asking too many questions, and this stifles our creative thought. Let us think for ourselves.” The “red flag” put me in front of an unpleasant fact – my manner of asking questions prevents students from thinking. A survey of students at the end of the semester confirmed this. The “red flag” at that moment, in front of the whole group, turned the criticism of my lectures into information that was simply impossible to ignore.
I borrowed the idea of ”red flags” from Bruce Wolpert, who invented in his company Graniterock an effective method called “underpayment.” “Underpayment” entitles the client to decide how much to pay and whether to pay at all – based on his satisfaction with a product or service. “Underpayment” is not a refund system. A customer does not have to return the goods, he also does not need to ask permission from Graniterock. He simply strikes out all the services that didn’t satisfy him from the bill, subtracts their value from the total amount and writes out a check for the remaining amount. When I asked Wolpert why he came up with “underpayment,” he said: “You can learn a lot by interviewing consumers, but such information can be interpreted in different ways. With “underpayment”, you cannot ignore the facts. You often do not know that the customer is unhappy until you lose him. “Underpayment” is a preliminary warning system that forces you to take action long before the risk of losing a customer emerges”.
The task of this system of flags is to turn the information available to the company (manager) into performance indicators, i.e. facts that cannot be denied. For this reason, employees that are not concerned enough with their results always try to avoid setting specific goals, tied to clear metrics and dates in the calendar. To tell you the truth, sometimes even whole companies or organizations try to do this, especially when they’re most interested in billing their customers for as long as possible. Have you met such examples in your life?
Now, we are setting up our “red flags” in the field of project management. The first step we made – abandoned the plethora of project management tools. Some teams used TeamGantt, others – Redmine, some began to set up JIRA, the fourth just threw a list of tasks in the checklist, and the fifth conducted works in spreadsheets. Because of this situation, every attempt to start a new development faced common answers: “I’m overloaded now”, “we do not have enough resources”, “we need to investigate this, however we have urgent tasks at the moment”, etc. For a long time I silently accepted these answers as real arguments, until I asked myself some logical questions:
- Then how can I know the workload of each one of more than hundred employees?
- How can I see the works of any of the employees to determine their importance comparing to a new task?
- How do I know which tasks and employees are at critical stages and in which projects?
- In what periods are employees of a certain specialization less loaded and can get to my tasks?
I don’t support the idea that technology can solve problems – it really can’t. I had to watch a lot of silly situations, when teams change software one after another, not getting the expected result and reckoning the success of projects to some kind of magic. However, before arranging the order, it is necessary to find the source of the problems. In our case, it was hiding inside the chaos of work accounting, and we needed to gather all the activities of the company in one place.
Another flag system appeared spontaneously when I noticed that, while answering questions from employees and helping them solve their problems, I stopped switching on my computer during the day. Communication took the whole day! What does this mean? That someone gets paid while doing their work with my hands. It is from this situation that the complaints of many managers about the lack of time are born and this was the first item on the list of critical problems.