How do watermelons get into project reports? and why should you watch out for them?
“Watermelon reporting” describes the phenomenon where according to a project status report things appear to be green on the outside (i.e. the project’s RAG status is reported as green, with no issues), but if you delve a little deeper and look inside, it’s actually red right through (i.e. there are serious issues).
I can’t take the credit for coining this expression but I can’t remember where I heard it either [02Mar21 update – I’ve found a Tweet and a mention of a conference presentation – both from 2010, so it would seem that the credit for coining the phrase is due to Rob Thomsett – kudos to him!].
So what are the factors that might lead a PM to report a project as green when it’s really red?
- It’s embarrassing for a PM to admit that “their” project is not going as well as it could/should be;
- It increases the risk that the project will be cancelled (and we all know what happens to a PM whose projects get cancelled…);
- The problem really should have been reported (perhaps as amber) some time ago, and to report it as red now would expose that it wasn’t reported amber before;
- There’s still an opportunity to turn it around before the next report is due and then no-one will need to know it was ever red, will they?
- “We don’t have red projects in this organisation” (oh yes you do!)
Looking at these reasons, you can see that most of them come from the assumption that red is a Bad Thing, and that this is the PM’s Fault – i.e. the organisation has a “blame” culture. Unfortunately, concealing red status inside a green status report is seldom a good idea, for the following reasons:
- The sooner a problem is identified, the cheaper it is to rectify;
- The sooner the PM escalates problems to the Sponsor, the more likely it is that the Sponsor will hear about it from the PM (rather than from another senior stakeholder with an axe to grind, for example!);
- The sooner the Sponsor hears about the problem, the more time they have to perhaps mobilise resources to help, pave the way for a resolution, or manage the message;
- The consequences of the concealment being discovered get worse the longer the concealment persists (and this is more a case of when rather than if, a bit like when children lie to their parents)
- If the project really is red enough to be cancelled, then doing this would be in the interests of the organisation, and no PM will win friends by keeping a bad project going longer than it should be.
Of course the PM should not be flagging every little issue and running to the sponsor every half hour (they are paid to sort most things out) but they should be flagging the project as red when any of the constraints (i.e. budget, schedule, quality, benefits) are seriously threatened, and feeling no shame in doing so.
Red should not be seen as an indicator that there is (or should be!) blood on the corporate carpet; instead red should be seen as the colour of the distress flare that the PM is effectively launching to alert stakeholders to the fact that there is trouble, and some tough decisions may need to be taken.
As a PMO, wherever I see watermelon reporting, I encourage the PM to be brave and honest enough to ask for help. Have you seen watermelon reporting? Do your project managers “keep calm and report it as green”? If so, how have you dealt with it? Let me know in the comments.