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The Triple Constraint in the Project Management Real World

The Triple Constraint (also known as the Project Management Triangle) is a classical topic in the Project Management discipline, but let’s see how it is really applied in the real Project Management world:

Your business sponsor comes to you – the Project Manager – and says “Hey! I saw your project plan and I see that you are estimating this project will take about 6 months.  Is that typical?”

You answer “No, that’s accelerated with no change buffer and no shift in business requirements.”

He/she answers “Yeah, well the thing is that we have about $2 million in add-on revenue that is dependent upon this project.  And if you deliver along this timeline that $2 million will either spill into next year or evaporate entirely….so we need you to deliver in 2 months.”

“Awesome!” you say, “No problem. We can crash the plan.  Hey! I see that over 600 man hours of project scope has already been defined.  You are asking me to deliver all this scope in about 2 person months…so which of this scope can we potentially de-prioritize or push to a latter release?”

“Oh, well, we need all the scope…in 2 months.”

“Oh sure, well, then how many more people can you put on the project?”

“Oh, we can’t give you any more people.”

I wish I were describing a textbook extreme case of Projects Gone Mad; you know, some crazy example that some crazy PMP made up just to describe how a project could go completely whacked.  But this isn’t a textbook…but this actually just happened to me.

So what is a project manager to do?

The first thing I did was walked into my boss’s office and painted the following diagram on the whiteboard:


I relayed the tenets of the triple constraint, sometimes called the Golden Triangle.  These things he knew, but it is always good to have a visual.  The next thing I did, was re-draw the triangle as it now looked per the business sponsor’s actions:


Implications of the Revised Triple Constraint.   The scope cannot change because that is what the business committed to.  The cost naturally is going to rise with or without additional budget to capture the shortfall.  Meaning, the internal cost of labor is going to rise because overtime, nights and weekends is going to burned in to make this happen.  And the schedule remains “aggressive” to say the least.

How Can This Be Avoided? 

The snide answer is that it can’t.  Along your career as a project manager, this situation is going to happen.  Sales and Delivery are often disconnected and when they are, these kinds of situations are going to happen.  The key is to take a deep breath and lean in – to use the Sheryl Sandberg term.  I would urge organizations who have this situation in their company to quickly re-think how they are organized.  They are ticking time bombs for just this kind of situation.

The reality is, though,  that these situations can actually be avoided by thoughtful leadership. When a product is new to the market, it is extremely hard to gauge how to sell it and these kinds of situations will occur.  The sales team is just ramping up on what to sell and how to sell it and the implementation teams are ramping up on how to deliver.

Communication.  So one critical way to avoid this triple constraint debacle is simply to communicate.  The sales team should approach the delivery team with their thoughts on the company’s commitment level and the delivery team should be asked to provide feedback about the commitments that are actually made.  This may sound dreamy and bureaucratic, but the organization will be better off as a result.  Wars happen over people’s failure to communicate.  Projects are no less susceptible.  Clients may ultimately look past slightly delayed delivery (very slight). But they never look past mis-set expectations and low quality deliverables.

Training.  Part of the Communication Plan needs to be the training that each team will receive.  How to sell the product?  What are the key drivers of delivery complexity?  What NOT to sell, etc.

Risk/Reward Alignment.  Organizational behavior tells us that people act in accordance with how they are compensated to act.  Incent a sales team to sell the maximum amount of widgets per month possible and by golly you will have a whole ton of widget sales!  But what if a sales teams ability to sell widgets outpaces the organization’s ability to produce them?  Then you have a whole tone of liabilities and no assets to speak of.  Not good. Margins go down.  Net income goes down.  Cost of Sale goes up!

The same holds with product sales.  If the sales team’s compensation is aligned with not just the sale, but also the delivery, then guess what?…they are going to start caring a whole awful lot about how well the implementation goes and will work more proactively with their clients to ensure that expectations are set properly and the right commitments are made.  Moreover, the organization’s sales volume may be lower in the short run, but the quality of the sale will be higher, which translates to higher margin, often faster delivery and most importantly happy customers.

Sounds like a win-win to me!

Happy PMP’ing!

Jonathan Goldstein, PMP, MBA
McKinney, TX

 Sourse image: Mick Lobbgeograph (CC 2.0)

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