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Red Traffic Lights


The other day, a the lecture in Potsdam, I spoke among others about TDD, test-driven development, and about my joy about red traffic lights in the TDD context. One of the students asked a question, he found it intriguing to enjoy red traffic lights.

In fact, in my 15 years as a project manager, I rarely enjoyed red traffic lights. So where’s the difference?

Annoying red traffic lights are raised by somebody else, often by a quality manager, and he spoke about me or my team. Most people feel attacked in such a situation and prepare themselves for defense. The resulting discussions are usually more loud than useful.

Red traffic lights in TDD (and, by the way, in many other contexts, too) are raised by me, for myself, as a reminder that there is something left to do. I don’t need to defend myself against anybody, it’s just another item on the to-do-list. So what?

Burn-down charts in scrum or Kanban cards in production have a similar role: they are “just” signals by ouselves, for ourselves.

Here’s one of the keys to high-performing teams: Do you experience the traffic lights in your team as coming from the “outside” (and likely annoying you), or do you perceive them as coming from the “inside” (and you experience them as support)? How do you react?

High-performing teams organize themselves in such a way that they are fully focussed on their goal – including their own internal warning mechanisms to manage risks around missing their goals. This focus on the goal leads to a constructive approach to feedback (including but not limited to red traffic lights). More on that soon, in another article.

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