Project Status Reports: Quantum Shifting

When a project status shifts from green to red, particularly when this happens suddenly without much or any warning, we say that it has “quantum shifted.” This sort of change to project status may have happened for a valid reason, but in most cases it is a sign that something has gone wrong within the project team – not only is the project at risk, but you may also have a significant cultural risk too.

What is Quantum Shifting?

The word quantum implies something sudden and significant.  In physics a quantum shift is the movement of an electron from one orbit to another, a significant event for that atom as it involves the gain or loss of a proton, resulting in a fundamental change in its nature. In project management, we say that our project status experiences a quantum shift when it moves from green (positive) to red (negative). This is similarly a significant event for the project as it signals an important change in situation.

In the following diagram you see how the project status was green (positive) for several time periods (perhaps months, sprints, or weeks). Then suddenly, the status shifts to red. This is significant because there are few acceptable reasons for this to happen in practice, as we discuss next. Typically I would expect a project status to shift from green to yellow, an indication that the project is troubled and needs to get back on track. If the situation worsens then status would then shift to red whereas if it got back on track it would eventually improve to green.

Quantum shifting of status

“Acceptable” Reasons for Project Status to Quantum Shift

Let’s work through acceptable reasons, or perhaps valid reasons is a better term, for why you would see a quantum shift in project status from green to red. For a quantum shift to be valid, I would expect to see something bad to occur suddenly and unexpectedly. Possible scenarios would include:

  1. You lost key team members(s). Everyone eventually decides, or is forced, to move on from your organization. It happens. Sometimes you have a sense that someone is getting ready to leave, and sometimes you’re surprised. The sudden and unexpected loss of one or more critical team members can force a quantum shift in your project status.
  2. Your environment changed. Your internal environment may change, for example your group experiences a budget. Or your external environment may change, such as we all experienced with COVID19. These environment changes may break the underlying assumptions that you need to hold true for your project as it currently stands to be successful.
  3. Your leadership direction changed. Leadership at any level could change, putting your initiative at risk. For example, replacing the project manager, an agile team’s product owner, the project sponsor, or your organization’s executives could result in a significant shift in the strategy driving your project. Reorganizations are virtually guaranteed to put at least a few projects at risk.

Note that it is possible to have expected, and planned for, all of the situations mentioned above. And yes, a good project manager or team lead will have done so. However, it is also possible for these events to occur suddenly and unexpectedly – when that is the case, I consider these valid reasons for a quantum shift in project status.

Questionable Reasons for Project Status to Quantum Shift

There are several highly questionable reasons for project status to quantum shift:

  1. The project started out in trouble. Sometimes the project starts out as yellow or red from the very beginning, even though you may be claiming it’s green to senior leadership for political expediency. I’ve worked on several projects where the team knew we were in trouble from the very first day, and even a few where we knew that there was no chance of success. Yet we weren’t allowed to get it on track, or in some cases cancel it. There are many reasons why this happens, but they typically boil down to the initiative being someone’s pet project that they pushed through your portfolio management process, the team not being given the time to properly initiate the project, or an ineffective (or non-existent) portfolio management process.
  2. The project manager purposefully hid the true status. I’ve worked with great project managers who have unfortunately found themselves in situations where they needed to report a positive status to give the team sufficient time to hopefully get it back on track. This is often a symptom of a lack of psychological safety within the organization, of a dysfunctional reward system, or simply of poor governance.
  3. The team hid their status from the project manager. I’ve also seen teams where the project manager has lost the respect of the team members, if they ever had it at all. For example, I audited a large software initiative where the program manager was claiming to be on time across a schedule with several thousand tasks. Leadership within the organization questioned this claim, hence the audit. I was very interested because I had never seen such a feat and was hoping to learn a new management strategy. I soon discovered that the program was a complete mess, unbeknownst to the program manager, and that the developers were reporting false information into the time tracking system. Instead of reporting their actuals they were instead looking at the project plan to discover what they were planned to do, then reporting those hours regardless of what they actually did. In short, they reported what the program manager wanted to hear, and she summarized and reported that to her superiors.
  4. The team didn’t monitor their internal environment. When a team gets blindsided by a change to their internal environment, very often that’s a symptom that they weren’t monitoring what was going on around them. I’ve seen this happen on several teams, in particularly “skunk works” efforts where they purposefully detached from the rest of the organization, where they chose to ignore rumours they were hearing because they were too busy with project work.
  5. The team didn’t monitor their external environment. Similarly, when a team gets blindsided by external changes it’s often because they weren’t paying attention. Earlier I mentioned COVID-19. The fact is that in early January 2020 there were signs that something was going on (it was first reported just before New Year’s eve by a Toronto company that I once worked with) and by the end of that month it was clear that we were in trouble. The company that I was working with at the time started locking down travel at that point and got serious about contingent planning, and by mid-February we started to act. Compared with most Western companies we were a full month ahead, enabling us to keep our people safe. We had an international network that provided us with valuable intel that we choose to listen to and act on.
  6. The team didn’t recognize they were in trouble. An underlying assumption of project status reports is that you’re able to identify and understand your status, and then report it. So, there may have been good communication within the team, there may have been effective monitoring of the environment, but the team simply didn’t have the experience to recognize that things were starting to go poorly. Our project teams operate in complex environment taking on complex problems, and sometimes we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory. I’ve seen this numerous times on software development teams, often because the team wasn’t staffed with sufficiently experienced people, something that is difficult to achieve given the rate of change within the software world. Having said that, this is a symptom that you didn’t (or couldn’t) build a team with the capability to do the job that they had taken on.

When Do Quantum Shifts Occur in Project Status Reports?

In the case of shifts due to valid reasons, immediately after the event has occurred (I hope). I’m a firm believer in wanting to hear an accurate assessment of a team’s status, positive or not, in a timely manner.  Luckily, because the valid reasons are all connected to other major changes it shouldn’t be a surprise to senior leadership that the project is now red. Unfortunate, but not surprising.

In the case of shifts due to questionable reasons, you typically hear about the negative status at the point where the PM realizes that it’s clearly not responsible to hide the status any longer or when it is simply not possible to do so (they’ve been caught or are about to get caught).

How Can You Avoid Quantum Shifting?

The crux of the problem is that when project status is manually reported, such as in a weekly status report, it is at risk of being miscommunicated. Furthermore, when a project is complex or when some aspects of it are not well understood by leadership, then there is the risk that it isn’t monitored or measured effectively because leadership isn’t capable of understanding what’s being reported.  Either way, the true project status is at risk of being misunderstood.

Luckily, there are several strategies for more accurate status reporting:

  1. Automated reporting. It is common to apply data warehousing technologies to implement metrics dashboards at the team, program, and portfolio levels. These tools report on data that is automatically generated by the activities of your team, at least for the activities where people are using software-based tools that are built to generate such data. This is very common for software development teams and other engineering disciplines.  Automated dashboards are rarely sufficient for comprehensive reporting, but they go a long way towards it.
  2. Gemba walks. Management goes to where the work is performed to see what is actually happening. This provides better insight into what is happening on the ground, rather than what is being told to you.
  3. Direct conversation. Go and talk with the people involved and have a safe conversation with them to discover what is really happening.


My experience is that quantum shifting occurs on 5-10% of project teams at some point, although that is just my gut feel. This is based on having worked in dozens of organizations over the years, sometimes in a senior position, sometimes having been asked to audit or review portfolios, and sometimes being a project team member.

When quantum shifts occur you clearly have a problem with the project itself, the status is now red, and possibly with the members of the team. Many of the questionable reasons for quantum shifts in project status are symptomatic of cultural issues, and those tend to be difficult to resolve.


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