The Myth of the Triple Constraints

Projects don’t just have three constraints — scope, schedule, and cost. This idea that stakeholders only care about these three items is absurd. So we can deliver a product, be on time, stay in a budget, and guarantee success? I hardly think so. Just because I deliver a product that meets the scope doesn’t mean that I meet the necessary quality standards.

If I force my project to take priority in the organization, I may cause operational issues and risk to the existing products and processes of the organization. Although I met my triumvirate goals, I would have sacrificed too much of the corporate good to expect my role as a project manager to continue.

The project constraints are far more than three and must be balanced equally. Yes, it is absolutely true that knowing whether your stakeholders care more about cost or timeline can help with your planning; however, it is more important to understand all of your constraints and learn how to balance them.

Eat Up!

Managing the project constraints is like cooking a meal. The scope is dinner, the schedule is  6 pm, and the cost, let’s say, is $25/person (it’s a nice dinner!). If those were your only constraints you might be able to easily achieve success. However, then you have the team members who throw wrinkles and must be managed. Adam is a Vegan for moral reasons and can’t eat anything that is in a pan that had meat or dairy cooked in it. Bret is gluten intolerant, doesn’t like high-fat foods, and believes he is allergic to dairy and shellfish. Susan only likes foods that pair well with her favorite wine. Let’s not forget the pickiness of the seven children who all refuse to eat anything but the ONE item that they like (and of course, this one item is not shared amongst them). This is just as sample of how the simple scope of dinner turns into a fairly involved set of requirements. The added constraint, however, is not that the scope is complicated but that when everyone is together you have quality expectations, human resources, and communication issues to deal with as well.

Everyone who attends your meal expects to snack on appetizers, eat main courses and side dishes aplenty, and then finish with more desserts than the table can hold. These have to be executed perfectly and meet all of their detailed (and often conflicting) requirements. 

In addition, you have to manage the group to make sure that the party goes well. Remember who wants to sit with whom, which guest will drink too much if you don’t make sure to watch the wine service, and which child believes that he is too old to sit at the “kid’s table”. It is a guarantee that nobody will bring toys to entertain the kids or that the kids will be bored of toys that are brought, so you must plan activities to keep them entertained (remembering that the ages span from 2 to 14). Essential to team success is to make sure that your mother-in-law does not spend too much time with your mother as the two of them have been known to argue about what parenting approach should be used to discipline your two year old (and when wine is added these arguments can heat up).

Herding Cats

Getting a family or friends together for a meal is akin to herding cats or managing an enterprise program team meeting. Nobody is ever available at the same time, and even when they do say they can make it, there will be essential people who are early (typically the ones you don’t want there), late (the ones you actually needed to show up), or who do not attend (those folks who will now spend the next few months reminding you that the time for the meeting was wrong, and you needed to plan everything around them). You need to set expectations for the team (who is coming, what time, where, what to bring) and make sure that you provide them with status reports and task reminders. It is essential that they know you secured a large enough ham/turkey/tofurkey to feed the group, and you need to make sure that the folks assigned to bring bags of ice and spare card tables and chairs don’t show up empty handed.

So with this one example we’ve gone from three constraints to six that have to be managed for a simple dinner. Analyze an enterprise project, and I am sure you will see how procurement can factor into the constraints model as well. For a project manager it is essential that you identify and manage all of the constraints and that you know what matters most to each of your stakeholders. 

For me, after basically writing the tale of my holiday meal it means that next year I am checking out as project manager and checking in as a stakeholder. I’d rather give my requirements and enjoy the team dynamics than try to herd the family into project success .

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1 comment

  1. Gerry Reply

    Love the cooking example, so much crossover. No wonder we eat out so much these days.

    Agree that the triple constraint can no longer be the definition of a successful project.

    Even the scope could be broken apart into; A. What the client says they want., and B. What they actually want (but don’t want to pay for).