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Management By Colorforms August 31, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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As big a fan as I am of technology and tools, sometimes the simplest things really are the best.

At my company, we have some sophisticated tools for tracking our project portfolio, managing schedules, resources, and priorities.  We use these tools to drive planning and prioritization meetings, as well as to help our customers understand our planning and resource processes.  They provide greater insight into the ebb and flow of the work we do.

There are tools at the other end of the spectrum, too.  In addition to our portfolio management system, I also keep a list of various projects on my white board.  These are the projects that matter to me, for one reason or another.  Some are big, some are small.  Some are strategic, some are tactical.  Some have great political implications, while others may be the linchpin of a critical operational process.  But all of them matter to me, somehow.

Next to each project, I place a 2×2-inch vinyl square, either red, yellow, or green.  This is the same kind of vinyl used in those Colorform sets from our childhood, where you would stick different vinyl shapes onto a slick black background to create pictures.  That same vinyl sticks nicely to a whiteboard, and allows me to express my gut feel about a project.  Red expresses grave concern, yellow shows some doubt, and green denotes that all is well.

I update the squares as the mood strikes and as updates flow in from my team.  When good news arrives, a project may “go green;” bad news pushes a project down to yellow or (yikes) red.

Each day, as I arrive in the office, I place a small purple dot next to each square.  If someone comes and updates me on a project, I erase all the dots next to it on my board.  If a project is neglected for a period of time, the dots accumulate.  If a lot of dots collect next to a project, I know to go hunt down someone and get an update.

This highly complicated scheme was originally created to help me keep track of lots of projects quickly.  It certainly works in that regard.  But the real value of this system is what it has done to my team.

As people come and go in my office, they always stop and check the board, looking for their projects.  They want to know that they are green or yellow, and do not like being red.  They want to make sure that dots are not piling up.  This generates lots of conversation, which is always a good thing.  The board also lets people know which projects are top-of-mind for me, although I sometimes need to remind them that projects missing from the board still matter.

Just as importantly, people must come into my office to see the board.  At some point, it was suggested that I aim a webcam at the board, so people could review it from afar.  I declined.  I like that people must go to the board to see what is going on, and I like the quality conversations that ensue.  I am also told that people stop by when they know I am not here, for a “safe” peek at the board.  That’s OK, too. As long as people are talking and interacting, good things will result.

In spite of all of our fancy tools and systems, simple things often work best.  What’s the simplest tool you use to be an effective leader?  Have you considered Colorforms?

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Comments»

1. Lynn M - August 31, 2009

I think most successful people in any career use what works best for them. If you use a method or product just because it is the latest available, you’re forcing yourself to conform to IT, rather than using it to become better (more efficient, more creative, etc.) I loved reading about your Colorforms!

2. Susan Mazza - August 31, 2009

Love your system. And I agree whole-heartedly that simple is usually better. And to Lynn’s point I agree that successful people use what is best for them.

I have found that complex tools all too often end up putting the focus on the tool and the content you stuff in it and take attention off of the outcomes. And what really matters doesn’t always get captured by the tools especially when they are task oriented. It’s can be like reviewing a PowerPoint presentation that has zillions of slides with lots of tiny little details when what you really need to know and talk about are 3 key points that can fit in a really big font on one slide.

I had a simple system around tracking my time. Found a calendar software where I could sneak in the back door via Access to automatically generate my time sheet for clients with a few simple queries. I just kept my time up to date on my calendar and used a a category code and my monthly time reporting got a whole lot simpler. However, I upgraded to Outlook 2007 and cannot figure out how to replicate that simple functionality. They have all these features for tracking projects that I find way too complicated. There are some nice features I didn’t have too, but it has made what used to be simple so much harder! Hoping it is just that I haven’t figured it out and not that I can’t make it that simple again.

3. Wally Bock - August 31, 2009

I love simple systems that work. Thanks for a good example.

4. strategic change management - September 16, 2009

Great post. My approach to strategic change management says the quality of the first five percent determines what happens in the rest of the process. This same principle applies to many situations.


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