The project management triangle as it is sometimes known as a valuable tool for prioritizing and decision making. It is often used as a throwaway tool in training courses. But it is a powerful tool in the hands of a competent leader or professional.
You can pick any two, but you can’t have all three!
An undervalued management tool
Most people that have been on a management or project management course at some time have heard of “The Project Management Triangle”. This is sometimes known alternatively as the “Triple Constraint” or the “Iron Triangle”.
Before we explore this fully, it is important to know that there is some confusion, there are some variants of this model
Time – Quality – Cost
Time – Cost – Scope = quality
The basic premise is that there are three main factors in all decisions. You can have or control only two of them.
Exploring the triple constraints
You can have something
- FAST & CHEAP but it won’t be good quality
- CHEAP & GOOD QUALITY, but it won’t be quick or on time
- ON TIME and GOOD QUALITY but it cannot be CHEAP
Underlying values or scope
When defining a project or work task there are boundaries and values that we need to work within. For me at the beginning of any major project, I need to understand what are the key priorities. Given a situation, what does the stakeholder or project champion value most? Time, quality or cost.
Problems will occur. Compromises will need to be made. Under such situations what comes first? Time, quality or cost. What comes last.
It can NEVER be “it depends”. For a given project or piece of work, there must always be a set 1st priority and last. Without this confusion and indecision will be king.
The boss wants it all
Of course, the person paying the bill will want all three. But they cannot. A confident project manager knows this and helps the manager/ stakeholder to understand that you can have 2 but not all three.
This really manifests itself when it comes to problems and big barriers in the development of the project. Things go wrong. The plan gets delayed. Things need to be done. Life happens. So we need to understand before things go wrong what the priority really is.
Fixed price projects – pick two
Any project where the price or cost is fixed before the project starts is asking for trouble. No matter how well you plan, things will go wrong. With costs fixed this leaves one of two outcomes. The project completion will be late, OR it will not be of the quality that was required. In this instance, low quality could mean fewer features or functions or durability.
When problems occur, there is always a cost (penalty). That cost will be time, money or function.
Time – the triple constraint
Time is the factor of speed. When something needs to be done by. We can always make things faster by throwing more resources at the problem. But that costs. Equally, we can do it for the given time at the given cost, but the quality (this might be functions, specification etc.) will slip.
Cost – the triple constraint
Money and resources are the bedrock of all projects and business decisions. Everything costs something. Sometimes we have extra budget to spend. Other times we do not.
Quality – the triple constraint
Quality is often difficult to measure. What is “good” quality? What is poor quality? Often quality is in the eye of the beholder. The bottom line for me regarding quality is “fitness for purpose”.
For example, is a cheap car “quality”? If our need is to get from a to b, then a low-cost car will do this. If our goal is to impress with features, then we need a much higher specification to get us from a to b.
Quality could be said to be a distinctive attribute or characteristic possessed by something. If that attribute is missing, then we will tend to say that quality is lacking.
All of these factors contribute to the scope of a project. The boundaries of the project. The stated need or outcome.
Time quality cost – what they don’t tell you
This model is taught in many courses. Its name sometimes changes. The dimensions on the triangle sometimes vary. But all of the documentation and literature I have seen all neglect to say that the key to making this work is consistency. Once a priority order for a project has been set, you cannot pick and choose which 2 you apply as a priority throughout the project process. The methodology works best when used as a set of underlying principles behind the project as a whole.
The Project Management Triangle or triple constraint tool is a useful framework for all managers and leaders to use as part of the discussion when it comes to change management and problem-solving. With everyone concerned knowing the constraints and priorities before problems happen, it can make problem-solving faster and more aligned to the needs of the organization.
Constraints on the ability to amend priorities and plans
In any business and within any project there will always be ongoing constraints and the need to amend and adapt the priorities. Being “AGILE” is one thing, but being fickle with plans and approaches is quite another. The changes you make to project scope and priorities should be aligned to the initial boundaries as defined in the project specification and outline.
For example, If a key priority at the outset is quality, it is wrong to change the priority part way through the project to time. Defining the values of the project design and delivery and sticking to them is key throughout the whole life cycle of the project.
You can pick any two… time cost quality triangle – triple constraint in project management – project management constraints – fast good cheap