The red flag rule is a necessary tool for project management

     

    Introduction

    Let’s imagine a situation: an engineer has been dealing with a complex technical problem for some time and he cannot find its solution on his own. He spends on the task an hour, then another one… The whole day goes by in the same manner, but there is still no solution. At the next stand-up, he informs the team that he should complete the task in 10 hours, but has already spent 7 hours and has not achieved any results. A colleague from the team says to him: “Have you tried this solution?”. And the engineer gets inspired. Indeed! Now the task will be finished. But it still takes 10 hours to do it, and there are only 3 hours left from those originally announced. As a result, the time estimation for the task’s completion will be exceeded by 7 hours.

    Have you imagined it? Now let’s try to guess what the engineer needed to do to avoid such a situation. It is logical that he should have immediately turned to a colleague. However, this is not always feasible, because then everyone in the team will begin to distract each other too often. Another possible option is to work overtime on the task, but this practice will quickly lead to burnout of the engineer.

    At JazzTeam, the solution to this important problem is incorporated in the culture. From the very beginning, the company adopted a standard of transparency and honesty in relations both with the customer and between the team members. We do not hush up problems, we deal with risks expertly and in a timely manner. We do not create the appearance of ideal efficiency, but honestly talk about situations that arise on the project and we are ready to admit mistakes. Thanks to this approach, we never present the customer with unpleasant surprises: he always knows what is going on on the project.

    Our management concept assumes that the manager is a friend of the team, you can always turn to him for help. However, we remember that each team member, including the manager, has their own tasks and priorities. To regulate the strategy of responding to difficulties arising in the process of working on a task, we introduced a special standard – the Red Flag Rule, which we will discuss in detail in this article.

    Reasons for Using the Red Flag Rule in our Company

    At JazzTeam company, a culture of task decomposition and estimation has been established at the value level. This approach exists due to our standards in project management: the desire for effective cooperation and the provision of high-level service. Most often we work under the Time&Material contract. This type of collaboration usually does not include an initial assessment of all work. Sometimes, even the list of tasks that need to be done may be absent in the first iterations. Despite this, our managers are ready to take on the setting of tasks and, at the request of the customer, make a preliminary assessment of them. When the list of tasks is completed, we decompose and estimate each task in the project plan. In the future, we carefully monitor the budget and inform the customer in advance about the risks of deviating from the estimations, we offer a number of solutions to this problem. We strive to complete all the work exactly on time. Due to the applying of effective approaches in project management and a professional team of managers, in our company the deviation of the actual spent time from its initial estimation for T&M projects does not exceed 20%.

    The responsibility of each participant in the project is very important for strict adherence to the terms of the estimation. A specialist must realistically see the current status of the tasks assigned to him and be responsible for their successful and timely completion. If in the process of work an employee has difficulties and there is a risk to go beyond the declared estimation, he acts according to the Red Flag Rule developed in our company. This rule is established in JazzTeam at the level of business processes and management standards. Every employee of our company studies the Red Flag Rule as one of the important components of our culture and always strictly follows it. This also applies to specialists from departments not directly related to the development of IT products: marketing, HR, administrative department and sales.

    The Essence of the Red Flag Rule

    “Red Flag” is a metaphorical expression denoting the occurrence of a problem that must be solved in order to avoid exceeding the stated time estimation. The essence of the rule is the timely warning of the manager responsible for the progress on the project about the problem. If the employee realizes that he does not have time to complete the task in accordance with the declared estimation, he “throws a red flag” – informs the manager about the difficulties that have arisen.

    According to the Red Flag Rule, the problem must be reported as early as possible (before the deadline) so that the manager has time for the necessary activities: discussing the situation with the customer, finding the optimal solution, reassigning tasks in the team, etc. However, this rule does not imply that when a problem arises, the employee immediately shifts responsibility for his task to the manager. We will consider this issue in more detail below.

    Red Flag RuleRed Flag Rule

    In What Situations does the Red Flag Rule Apply?

    The concept of the Red Flag Rule in our company is applicable to any task. We process in advance even minimal risks and prevent the occurrence of problems that negatively affect the project. Therefore, the honesty and proactiveness of engineers in discussing the status of their tasks with the manager is very important for us.

    The reason for the emergence of a situation in which it is necessary to apply the Red Flag Rule may lie not only in the insufficient qualification of an employee. Perhaps the task is particularly difficult and non-trivial, or it was initially incorrectly estimated. In any case, the employee who turns to the manager is never placed in the position of the culprit responsible for the situation’s arising. On the contrary, we welcome awareness and honesty. Instead of avoiding complex tasks or working overtime on them, our engineers start with the tasks’ decomposition: breaking them down into subtasks that last 1-2 hours. This process allows specialists to learn how to estimate tasks in a high-quality way and gradually move along them.

    In the process of completing tasks, when difficulties arise,JazzTeam’s employees turn to colleagues or managers for help in time, thereby avoiding the need for overtime due to an unfulfilled task during the working day. If an engineer signals about the problem in advance, the manager takes his side and shares the responsibility with him, helps to overcome the difficulty that has arisen.

    What Actions Must be Taken before Applying the Red Flag Rule?

    Suppose a specialist has spent 1/10 of the estimated time on a task with no result. This is not yet a reason for urgent notification of the manager. In this situation, the employee has alternative options for subsequent actions. If this is an inexperienced specialist, he may dive into the company’s manuals and project documentation, independently study additional information from available sources, and ask for help from more experienced team members. If a Senior or Middle engineer is working on a task, he should still try to find a solution: look at the situation from different angles, try to apply a different approach, and consult with his colleagues.

    There is no one-size-fits-all instruction indicating when it is time for an employee to adhere to the Red Flag Rule. Most often, the critical point is the expiration of 70% of the time from the estimation of the task without significant progress, but much depends on the subjective instinct of the employee and his experience, as well as the context of the situation. For example, if the task is time-consuming, it makes sense to notify the manager about the situation at 50% of the time spent on the task. If the task is small and takes only 2 hours, it is necessary to rely on the context: in the case when the result is not urgently required, you can discuss it at the daily stand-up of the team as a general issue.

    How the Red Flag Rule Enhances the Processes and the Psychological Climate in the Team?

    Self-made estimation and responsibility for the own tasks allows the employee to develop such qualities as awareness and realism. This helps him to confidently make progress in the future and calmly complete tasks on time. The ability of each employee to correctly estimate their tasks has a positive effect on the entire team. If the specialist works in the style offered by our company, competently uses decomposition and estimation, adheres to the Red Flag Rule, teamwork will always go according to plan, without stress and conflicts, and the need for overtiming. In the event of an emergent situation that requires additional resources, the customer will be warned about this in advance, which will allow us to agree on a response strategy and maintain a positive relationship with the customer. This approach ensures comfort and predictability of work for the whole team, allows to establish a healthy psychological climate and protects the project participants from nervousness.

    Benefits for the Customer

    The application of the Red Flag Rule at JazzTeam indicates that we strive to establish trusting relationships with our customers and do not hush up problems. The project manager openly discusses with the customer the risks of deviations from the task estimations and suggests options for responding to them. Together we work out the optimal solution that allows us to release the product on time.

    Thanks to the use of the Red Flag Rule in our company, it is impossible for an employee to work on a task all day without a tangible result. By setting aside several hours a day for research on a task and gradually progressing along it, our specialists achieve a concrete, demonstrable and predictable result on a daily basis. We distribute and use the resources efficiently, thereby saving the customer’s budget.