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Focus on green (not just red and yellow)

Justin Odenbach

While it’s tempting to only focus on what’s at risk or off track, it’s a mistake to skip over things that are going well. Here’s why.


Whether we’re looking at status reports, stock tickers, or our cell phones quickly losing battery life, the universal color-code—red, yellow, and green—gets a message across faster than numbers can alone. These colors mean specific things to us, both intellectually and emotionally. In fact, the colors can even produce certain physiological and psychological responses.

But what you think about green might be holding you back—and limiting the potential of your people and your business.

What the colors mean to us

We all respond to red, yellow, and green in undeniably similar ways.

Red is the color of urgency. It’s used to indicate danger and a sense of now. That’s why we use it for stop signs and brake lights. The color red has also been shown to physically and emotionally agitate us, increasing our stress levels and heart rates.

Yellow means caution. It asks for your attention. We use it on road hills and corners to symbolize the need to look out and slowdown. We see it as the line we shouldn't cross.

Green is different. Green means keep doing what you're doing. We use green on our roads to signify information—a mile marker or an upcoming exit. Unlike red and yellow, it's a cool, unassuming color that generates relatively little emotional response. Green is calming and doesn't inflict pain or concern. It's the color of nature and growth.

Why our fear of risk is holding us back

Because of how we naturally react to these colors, we tend to focus on red first, then yellow, then green.

We know what to do with red. Red means fix immediately, focus here, and pay attention. Red on revenue means focus on sales growth or start cutting costs.

Then, if there’s time, we attend to yellow. We also know what to do with yellow: tap the brakes, double check the data, revisit the plan, and make sure nothing is missing or awry. We know to focus on that area so it doesn’t turn red.

But what should we do with green? We rarely discuss green, except to acknowledge that it isn't yellow or red. Even though green is the goal, it gets ignored. This dismissal of green limits us. When we skip over green, we miss positive activities, insights, and opportunities.

I sat in a meeting where people took data that was green and turned it to yellow just in case it wasn't going to be green next week. It seems we’re afraid to reach the goal, because if we do, we could then fall from it. This begs the questions, Are we letting fear prevent us from reaching the goal, celebrating it, and sustaining success? Would we rather be skipped over than pushed to greater achievement?

In this example, instead of discussing what we could do with the business because it was so great, we discussed preventing it from going red by reinvesting in the area that was yellow, which may not have been the right place to invest energy. What might have happened, and how could we have benefitted, if we had instead invested our time, energy, and resources in taking advantage of green?

This dismissal of green limits us. When we skip over green, we miss positive activities, insights, and opportunities."

Green means that we have a chance to move faster and be even better. Things could be going so well that we can do more, set higher goals, make additional investments, or decide to issue dividends or stock grants. We can change what we're doing, hire more people, or pay the people who are doing it more. Or, we could simply celebrate and acknowledge greatness. So many opportunities are lost when we ignore green!

The damage we do by skipping over green is as bad as showing a status report that’s always glaring red, inducing urgency and panic without having a real plan to move forward. Let me be clear: there are valid reasons for leveraging all colors, and they’re very useful when we use them appropriately. But the right way to use them is to have a plan and a dialogue about what to do differently for each color scenario.

How to make the most of green

It won’t be easy to give green equal weight to yellow and red. It’s so tempting to solve the problems of red or yellow because they’re glaring, require less creativity, and have the potential for much more immediate satisfaction for having “done something.”

Your organization has already likely established norms and behaviors associated with green that will be hard to change, but I encourage you to challenge yourself and your team not to dismiss green with an obligatory nod. Don’t be satisfied skipping over green to get to the yellow and red discussion. Instead, start setting and practicing new behaviors:

  1. Develop a practice of talking about what green is conveying. Ask, “Why?” “Why?” and “Why?” again until you understand. Explore whether green is conveying satisfactory or exemplary performance. Ask for commentary, and allow for a moment of deserved calm or excitement.
  2. Identify behaviors that created green. The core behaviors that led to green may help you sustain it—or get there in new areas. Define the behaviors, and assess whether they should become habit or part of a new process.
  3. Commit to having an action plan regardless of color. Maybe you can use green in one metric to help improve yellow or red somewhere else. Or, maybe green can help offset a yellow or red by continuing with even more success.

This new way of working will become more natural with time and practice. You’ll soon find that you’re building your skills and opening up new opportunities and potential as you practice asking, “So, what are we doing with green?” When this happens, make sure you note how celebratory and grateful you and your team are as you share positive results and learn from new ways of working. When green gets its due time in the spotlight, you’ll be able to make proactive, growth-oriented, joyful decisions—which is much more powerful than only focusing on avoiding risks or fixing problems.

This post was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse.

meet the author

Justin Odenbach

General Manager, Chicago

Justin Odenbach is the general manager of Slalom Chicago. With over 20 years of diverse industry experience, Justin has helped a broad range of clients achieve their strategic, operational, and technological visions. He holds a degree in Economics from Middlebury College, and a MBA from the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College in Finance.
Justin Odenbach