The project management triangle has been the subject of many debates lately. In this article, I will explain what the project management triangle is, explore how it is useful and finally discuss a way of overcoming its constraints.

So let’s begin.

What is a project management triangle?

The Project Management Triangle (called also the Triple Constraint, Iron Triangle, and Project Triangle) states that the quality of a project is constrained by time, cost and scope, and changing one will have to be compensated by changing one or more of the other two to maintain the quality.

pm-triangle

The time represents the duration of the project, the scope can be measured by the number of deliverables, while the cost is the total spend on the project including labor and material costs.

Examples:

  • If you increase the deliverables, you would have to increase the time or cost or both.
  • If you want to shorten the time, you would have to decrease the deliverables or increase the cost or both.
  • If you want to decrease the cost, you would have to either increase the time or decrease the deliverables or both.

Probably, the inventors of the project management triangle (still unknown but circa 1950) wanted to convey to their bosses that there are some constraints in executing their project and that they “can’t have it all”. Simply saying that “we’ll give you: speed, low cost, quality – pick any two” would have been more fun but probably inappropriate for someone who went to University. So, they invented the triangle to make this look a bit serious and “managerial”. They even gave it a name – The Iron Triangle! Possibly, to convey that it cannot be changed or something to that effect. And, boy, it’s worked! We are still talking about it.

Criticism of the Project Triangle

This PMI article says this triangle is outdated, wrong and can swallow your projects like the Bermuda Triangle if you are not careful. Then it goes on to take the “time is money” adage literally and treats “time” as “cost”. Then it lost me or I lost it or we lost each other. I don’t know but what I know is no amount of dollars can buy time. I have worked on projects where time to market was critical – we failed because someone else beat us to it by a month. Twice.

John Ferguson Smart has also written that the Project Management Triangle must die! Strong words. I would argue with someone with “smart” in their name only if I had “smarter” in mine.

Some others have argued for a quadrilateral instead of a triangle, while some even have argued for a star.

Some have said that the area of the triangle is quality while some say that it is the scope and one of the constraints should be quality.

And on and on it goes.

Maybe there will come a time when someone will argue that we need to replace the triangle with a tesseract and have good reasons for it too.

Can we make the triangle concept better? Maybe, but I see no reason to vilify what exists today. I think the project triangle has been either taken too literally or confused with a recipe for success. To me, it is neither. It is an observation. It says that scope, cost and time are related and changing one would impact the other two. Seems pretty reasonable to me.

How does the triangle help us? In difficult times, we take emotional decisions and having this triangle in our consciousness protects us against making some promises we can’t keep. Or something like that. On a serious note, it can help us communicate with our bosses and clients who want everything and now!

Thinking outside the Box (Triangle?)

I am sure that like me, you too have had plenty of experience with this triangle. Most of the times I have failed to break its shackles. However, a few times, I was able to melt the iron in the iron triangle. Those times we were desperate, pushed in a corner with no way out. And at that time what helped was creativity – thinking outside the box.

The creativity that was neither radical nor revolutionary.

Let me give a couple of examples:

I was helping a startup build a mobile app. Their investor was willing to give them money only if they delivered their mobile app on both iOS and Android within three months. With the number of resources we had, there was no way it could be done. So we sat and brainstormed and came across Ionic. A framework that allowed us to write once and deploy to both iOS and Android. We nailed it well ahead of time.

A few years ago, when we were under the “Never forget that absolutely everything you do is for your customers” spell by Derek Sivers (a must read), 99% of our effort was spent on bettering the product. We didn’t have a good website. So we decided to allocate some time to make it better. We tried hard and as the deadline neared, we realized that it was not going to happen. Then, during a brainstorming session, it struck us that we could simply use a website template! We did, finished well in advance, with a much better website than we had hoped for.

As I said not mind-boggling at all. What it exposed, at least to me, is that we have blinders on without realizing it, and sometimes there are opportunities to throw them away and transcend the iron triangle.


If keeping a tabs on your scope, schedule and costs is proving a challenge, try Celoxis, the project management software that we develop. Celoxis is comprehensive and has tons of features and customizations to help you and your team stay up-to-date.

James West

Funny and sensible. Good point about creativity!

Prasanna

Nice article! It's always been a challenge for the service based company to bargain on the scope, cost and time. Agile practices brings a nice concept of delivering every Sprint with strong CI and CD in place. Following agile, client is going to be satisfied if he can see the real time progress every 2/3 weeks. If that becomes possible it's going to be easy to maintain the iron triangle and if team starts giving demos the traingle can be scaled up so to increase in time, cost and scope, which becomes a win - win situation. Are you guys bringing something on the table to follow scrum?


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