Any project and time-based initiative can be viewed as a combination of three variables:
Together, these constraints create an iron triangle, which is at the heart of all projects.
In this guide, we’ll explore what the iron triangle is and offer some strategies and tips for managing constraints in project management.
The iron triangle refers to a model that demonstrates the interrelationship between three primary forces in a project: scope, cost, and time. The three corners of the triangle represent these constraints:
The iron triangle model proposes that changing one aspect of the triangle will invariably impact the other two. For instance, if the project’s scope increases (e.g., adding new features to a product), it would likely require more time and/or cost to complete. Similarly, reducing cost might necessitate a cut in scope or an extension in time. Thus, the triangle is “iron” because it’s difficult to change one corner without affecting the others.
The main purpose of this model is to help project managers understand the trade-offs and balance competing demands during project planning and execution.
Over time, we learned that these three could also be manipulated by changing the quality of the product, so quality became an informal part of the iron triangle. Quality is a set of standards that should be met when deeming the scope “complete.” In most cases, achieving the scope is not enough to make the project successful if the overall quality is low.
At the core of the iron triangle is the interdependence of all the constraints. Manipulating one constraint impacts all other constraints and requires revisiting the whole triangle.
For example, you can’t simply add scope or reduce timelines without inadvertently affecting other variables.
Let’s dig deeper into how other variables might be affected when you are:
We tend to be impatient and want to get things done faster, especially when it comes to project execution.
It’s rarely a good idea to just tell the team to deliver more quickly. If we reduce the time, we must manipulate one of the other constraints — or all of them.
Your three options here are to:
The most straightforward path to reducing the time needed is by agreeing on a smaller scope.
Adding resources to reduce time is a tricky one. Nine women can’t make a baby in a month.
As a result, adding resources in the middle of the project to speed it up is often less effective and more expensive than if it was planned upfront.
But if you really have to, consider:
If you decide not to cut scope and not to add a budget, you inadvertently choose to cut the quality.
When working under pressure, people often do things like:
Reconsider whether these are the results you want; maybe it’s better to cut the scope or add a budget after all.
There’s hardly a more devastating event in project management than getting a budget cut in the middle of the project. If you lose planned resources, you can do the following:
Cutting scope is often one of the best approaches. It’s essential to assess your planned scope from the budget perspective.
The most important features are not always the most expensive ones. Assess importance vs. costs to find the best candidate to remove from the plan.
Cutting scope is not always about removing things altogether. Finding a cheaper alternative might do the job.
For example, replacing a well-known and respected KYC SDK provider with a lesser-known partner might allow you to keep the same functionality for a lesser cost.
You might consider intentionally reducing the quality to fit within the budget.
For example, you might reduce your planned budget for bug fixes and shorten the project’s design phase to get the same number of screens but with less polishing.
In some cases, done is better than perfect.
Scope creep, which means adding scope in the middle of the project, is a common headache for a project manager. Let’s see what you can do to remediate it:
The go-to approach would be to extend the time of the project given the new scope. The drawback here is that the new scope tends to require more time than if it was planned from the beginning.
You usually need the additional overhead of replanning the work, rethinking the approach, and adjusting the currently implemented scope.
There are two ways additional resources can help you.
First, if you add new scope, you increase the time needed. Then you can use an additional bumper to reduce the required time and keep it within the originally planned frames.
The other approach would be to use external solutions. You could cover the newly added scope with a pre-existing market solution or even outsource building and integrating it all together.
The last approach would be to neither reduce time nor increase the budget and just expect more scope to be delivered. As in the case of managing time and budget, this will result in a lower-quality product.
Changing just one variable within the project can devastate its success chances and usually result in costly sacrifices.
Because changes in the middle of the project are significantly more expensive than if planned from the onset, a skilled project manager tries to account for them early.
To help you manage constraints throughout the lifetime of your project, you can:
Project management 101: things never go as expected. The scope is added, things take longer than expected, people call in sick, and so on.
If you plan for the path of least resistance, you’re planning to fail, especially in the case of more complex initiatives.
Make sure you always add a time buffer to your estimates. My recommendation would be:
The same principle applies to the planned budget. Ultimately, I’ve never heard anyone complain that a project had been delivered too fast or that some extra budget was left out.
It’s critical to decide upfront what’ll be left out if you need to cut the scope and plan the roadmap around it. Otherwise, you might end up in a situation where all nice-to-haves have already been implemented because “it made sense to implement them while developing X.”
Ideally, 20–40 percent of the planned scope should be treated as a nice-to-have.
Proper risk management is one of the best investments you can make.
Start with exercises such as Triz or post-mortem and try to identify various scenarios that could go wrong. Then, plan upfront:
You should be able to limit the number of late iron triangle tradeoffs you have to make. Defining what you will do if these risks materialize will also help you avoid suboptimal decisions made under duress.
Whether you acknowledge it or not, every initiative is based on four primary constraints, that is:
You can’t escape this relationship.
Whenever you change one variable, the rest will react. Not necessarily in a linear way, and not necessarily equally, but they will react.
Instead of waiting for the change to come (and it will), you might as well take control of it, plan for it, and manage it from the beginning.
Featured image source: IconScout
LogRocket identifies friction points in the user experience so you can make informed decisions about product and design changes that must happen to hit your goals.
With LogRocket, you can understand the scope of the issues affecting your product and prioritize the changes that need to be made. LogRocket simplifies workflows by allowing Engineering, Product, UX, and Design teams to work from the same data as you, eliminating any confusion about what needs to be done.
Get your teams on the same page — try LogRocket today.
Sam Schulte, Vice President, Product Engineering at Inspirato, talks about the delicate balance between innovation and scale.
Workplaces have tried to move away from layers and layers of hierarchy, with managers managing managers in a seemingly never-ending pyramid.
Happy customers return value to the business and enable growth. Unhappy customers go to your competitors and bring their friends with them.
Marc Singer discusses OrthoFi’s position to help dental providers find the right type of conversions, i.e., patients at the right risk level.