Productive traffic lights

Nope, I’m not talking about the things you do in the queue while you’re waiting for it to turn green. That’s your own affair and so long as it’s legal and moral I’m not interested.  (Well I am, if it’s a bit salacious – drop me a line! 😉 )

No, I’m talking about the traffic light system for reviewing something you’ve done.

In a corporate/business environment it’s probably best used as a review tool at the end of a project or some other big milestone but it works nicely in a domestic situation too. For example, you could use it at the end of a ‘season’ or the end of the year. You might even use it after a relatively big event, such as a big, family summer holiday.

The core of it is remarkably simple but there area number of variations and add-ons that can make it more effective (and fun!).

Red represents the activities that were part of your project that were a waste of time (or went wrong etc). For those things, it’s time to stop.  At the other extreme is stuff that went well and had a big, positive impact, well beyond the effort it took. This is stuff you should do more of. Obviously in the middle is the amber light – stuff that went as well as you planned and had the level of impact you expected: pretty clearly that’s stuff you should continue.

It’s not rocket science – stop, continue, start/do more of/expand. Time for the last one comes from the first one.

In it’s most simple form, all this system needs is some time set aside, perhaps with other people who were included in the project (or whatever you’re using it on) and a rule that you can talk freely and openly.

(Personal observation: the only thing it’s missing from this system is a way to find things that you should be doing but aren’t doing at all, but that’s for another day.)

The productivity pro-version 😉

In it’s default set-up for this system, you could just sit there and muse on your red, amber and greens. The problem is that this can all too often become a bit of navel-gazing and not focussed enough. It can also slip easily into arguments and discussion.

Nor does it give you a good way of planning the ‘how’ you are going to do the things you’ve sorted out.

Index cards have got to be one of my favourite tools for working on productivity! ;)
Index cards have got to be one of my favourite tools for working on productivity! 😉

The first variation I’d like to suggest is this… Get yourself a set of index cards (or post it notes or whatever) and jot down the components of whatever you’re reviewing one on each index card only. For example, if you’re reviewing how will Christmas Day went with your family you might put down cooking the main course of your meal together as one task, shopping for it would be on a second card. Deciding what games to play would be on a third card – or you might have a different card for each game you played… and what about any TV you watched. One card per program?

In my household that last bit would be a short list: Dr Who.

The point is that by doing it in this rather forced way you get to be:

  • more structured in your thinking so you don’t just sit around talking
  • take more time, so you don’t forget things
  • get a bigger, better picture of how complicated even the most simple of projects are.

Take a break when you’re done to get a fresh head – and to give yourself time to add cards as things come to mind that you’ve forgotten.

Then, when you’re ready, get everyone involved who needs to be involved (and no one who doesn’t!) and discuss each card, one at a time, putting them into their respective piles. Allow time to argue and discuss.

Finally, when you’ve done all your cards take another tea break and come back to the issue.

In this last session you take each card in the red section first, and jot down on the card what your ‘exit strategy’ is going to be on the card. It’s all very well to decide that next year you’re not going to let Drunken Facist Uncle Nigel decide on all your TV programs, but you need to plan for how you’re going to make that happen. Ignore the stuff in the amber section – that’s just going to carry on as it is remember – and then look at the cards in your green pile. Take time to think about how you’re going to start these things and jot that thinking down on your cards.

All you need to do now is act on what you’ve decided!

Personal observation: if you’re using a task management system like Asana or Meistertask, generating your list of tasks-to-index cards is easy!


I’ve seen this system – and an almost infinite number of variations on it – used to review

  • something as small as how a meeting went
  • something as large as what to do differently for a community opera in next year’s production

and pretty much any and every variation in between! So what do you think? What can you think of that would benefit from a bit of structured system to review it’s effectiveness like this?

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