Bart Krawczyk Learning how to build beautiful products without burning myself out (again). Writing about what I discovered along the way.

The iron triangle in project management: Definition, strategies, and examples

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The Iron Triangle In Project Management: Definition, Strategies, And Examples

Any project and time-based initiative can be viewed as a combination of three variables:

  1. Time
  2. Scope
  3. Budget

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.

Table of contents

What is an iron triangle?

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:

  1. Scope — This refers to the size and requirements of the project, including all the tasks necessary to complete the project.
  2. Cost — This is the budgeted amount for the project, including all financial resources required for its execution.
  3. Time — This refers to the schedule or deadlines for the project’s completion.

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.

Managing constraints in project management

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:

Managing time

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:

Cut scope

The most straightforward path to reducing the time needed is by agreeing on a smaller scope.

Try to identify “nice to have” functionalities that you can add later or ignore altogether. Frameworks such as RICE and MoSCoW can help you immensely.

Add budget

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:

  • Adding more people to the project
  • Outsourcing parts of the project
  • Integrating external providers and out-of-box solutions rather than doing it yourself

Reduce quality

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:

  • Cut corners with implementation
  • Accept poor quality but “acceptable” work items
  • Make more errors and mistakes

Reconsider whether these are the results you want; maybe it’s better to cut the scope or add a budget after all.

Managing budget

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:

Cut scope

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.

More great articles from LogRocket:

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.

Reduce quality

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.

Managing scope

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:

Add time

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.

Add budget

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.

Reduce quality

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.

Strategies for managing constraints

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:

Add time and money buffers

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:

  • 10–20 percent for well-defined and well-understood projects
  • 30–50 percent for complex and not fully defined initiatives
  • 100 percent for very fluid ideas that’ll be clarified on the go

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.

Define must-haves and nice-to-haves upfront

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.

Manage risks like a pro

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:

  • What can you do to prevent them?
  • What can you do to reduce their impact?
  • What will you do if these risks materialize?

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:

  • Time
  • Budget
  • Scope
  • Quality

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

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Bart Krawczyk Learning how to build beautiful products without burning myself out (again). Writing about what I discovered along the way.

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