The Iron Triangle

Project management, at the end of the day, is all about managing and meeting expectations. And all the data suggests that many of our projects fail to meet expectations in one way or another. Project success is typically defined as meeting expectations around product scope (features, value, quality), budget, and schedule—the “iron triangle” of project management.

Every project begins with scope: “We’ve got to build something.” Then, inevitably, somebody adds: “Oh, by the way, here’s your budget and your due date.” And this is where we get ourselves in trouble, because you can’t say yes. If you do, there’s a very good chance you’ve just signed yourself up for lots of sleepless nights. But, of course, you can’t say no either. You can only get away with saying no so many times before they find somebody who says yes.

So what do you say when yes or no will get you in trouble? The answer—always—is, “Yes, we can do that, and let’s discuss the implications.” For far too many project managers this is a dead-end street. To discuss the implications you must first understand the implications yourself.

So here’s how to have the talk: “You need this done by end of July? Yes, we can do that, and let’s discuss the cost…Oh, the budget is fixed at $500K? Yes, we can get it done for $500K, and let’s discuss the schedule.”

“Clearly you’re not listening,” says the boss. “You’re going to get this done by end of July and you’re going to do it for $500K!”

Now what do you say? The answer—always—is, “Yes, we can do that too, and let’s be sure we understand the implications.” What are the implications? The implications are that we’ll likely start cutting corners. There’s a good chance the product doesn’t deliver the value expected or that we run into quality concerns. And there’s a good chance we experience budget and schedule overruns.

And wouldn’t it be nice if you could quantify these concerns? “You want this done by end of July? There’s a 35% probability we can make that happen. But if you give me to the end of August it goes up to 80%.” This is what professional project managers do: they provide real data and real options, which completely changes the conversation. It’s no longer, “I think” or “I feel” but “here’s what the data suggests.” And my experience is that management loves this. Many of them have no idea that project managers are capable of such analysis. Too many of them think all we do is create checklists because that’s all too many of us do!

Now nobody wants to hear bad news, of course. But muster up every bit of courage you have and deliver the facts. Remember, project management is all about managing and meeting expectations. You are far better off delivering bad news now, even if nobody wants to hear it, than setting up false expectations now and certain failure down the road. Down the road you’d rather say, in a very professional tone, of course, “I told you so!”

So the “rule” of the iron triangle is “pick two” of the three constraints. “Better, faster, cheaper” violates the physics of project management. “I can give you better and faster but that will cost you more.” Etc. And, if any one of the constraints changes, at least one of the other constraints must also change. “We have more work to do so we need more time or more money.” “We have less money so we need less work or more time.” This is the domain of project change control.

This is pretty much how the whole world works. Once upon a time I had a house built: I told the builders what I wanted and they told me how much and how soon—I only got to “pick one!” Recently I had some work done on my car: I told the mechanics what I wanted and, again, they told me how much and how soon. This is how the whole world works except for the kind of work we do. Why? What’s the difference? The difference is we don’t have the data to have the talk. Professional project managers can and must do better.

At this point I intended to engage the Agile folks who like to play games with the iron triangle. But it’s just not worth my time. Suffice it to say that the triangle works the same on Agile projects as non-Agile projects. That said, I do like Mike Cohn’s one-handed clock to represent the prioritization of project constraints. 

Finally, I’ll share a quick story. The principle of the iron triangle is so fundamental to good project management, and such a useful model for communicating with stakeholders, that I encourage my students to draw a triangle on their flipchart or whiteboard as soon as they get back to the office. Recently I saw a student again in another class. “Can I tell you a story about that triangle?” he asked.

“I was in your project management class because I’d just been asked to lead an enterprise-wide initiative and thought I should bush up on my project management skills. As soon as I got back to the office on Monday, just as you suggested, I drew the iron triangle on my whiteboard. A couple of weeks later the CEO dropped into my office one afternoon to discuss the project. I immediately went to the triangle and had talked about two minutes before the CEO picked up my eraser, erased my whiteboard, and said, ‘I don’t care; just get it done!’”

“Ouch!” I said. “But it gets better,” he said. “After nine months of blood, sweat, tears, and lots of sleepless nights, the CEO popped into my office again one afternoon: ‘Do you remember some triangle thing you had on your whiteboard? Draw that. I want to talk about it.’”

What a great story! The point is that you’re not going to change the world overnight. But if you’re professional, and you’re persistent, and you’re patient, it’s only a matter of time before you begin to make a real difference. So keep up the good work!

Leave a Reply