I attended a Masterclass run by John Niland a while ago. The other delegates were people running businesses similar to ours, albeit in different subject areas. During one of the sessions, I mentioned how the ‘project triangle’ could be used to describe constraints and risks working together. I was quite surprised at how enthusiastic people were about the idea because I had wrongly assumed that it was common knowledge. It is obviously a well guarded secret among the Project Management community. So what is it?

Why a Triangle?

If you Google project triangle you will see there are plenty of references including a full description on Wikipedia. It is also referred to as the ‘Iron Triangle’. Inevitably, this has been edited by project types like me so it makes for rather dry reading. I will try to bring it to life – wish me luck!

In simple terms, the project triangle shows the relationship between scope, time and cost. The fourth dimension is quality which sits in the middle of the triangle and, typically, can’t be altered. You might reduce the number of deliverables in a project but those left must work properly!

The triangle is a good metaphor because it is a rigid engineering shape as shown in the pylon image. The idea is that if you change one dimension then you must change one or both of the others to compensate. For example, if you wish to deliver a project in less time, you must either reduce the scope, increase the cost or both. Another way of describing the constraints is good, fast and cheap.

That’s fine in theory, but business is about getting more from less. Determined and ambitious managers will not necessarily appreciate the Project Manager blocking their demands for more stuff, more speed and less cash. So how do we say ‘No’ in a way that is perceived as ‘Yes’?

A Hypothetical Example

An organisation wants to restructure its customer service operation that includes a management team and a call centre. The project has been set up as follows:

  • Scope includes 50 people, all posts subject to change, one location.
  • Time is three months from announcement to new structure.
  • Budget includes redeployment costs and a small amount of specialist external resource.
  • The project is sponsored by the Chief Executive but will be delivered by the Human Resources team with support from operational managers.

On the face of it, the project is well planned. However, the Chief Executive becomes uncomfortable on the lead up to the announcement and, for sound reasons, feels that the period of time is too long and will be very unsettling for the customer service team and pose a risk to the operation. The project is now to be completed in two months.

What Can You Do?

So what is the impact on our project triangle and what can you do about it?

  • Reduce the scope by decreasing the number of people affected. This will reduce the amount of communication required and the face to face sessions with staff.
  • Increase the cost by increasing the HR resource available to the project. This might be by using overtime or buying in additional resources to support the HR team.

There is a third option.

  • Reduce the time, make no changes to scope and cost but increase risk.

The risks that you would identify for this project would be:

  • Industrial relations issues reducing operational performance
  • Legal action resulting in legal costs
  • Over worked HR team resulting in sickness or staff turnover
  • Operations managers lose focus resulting in lower operational performance

In this hypothetical example, and if we inject a bit of realism, the option to reduce scope is a non-runner because a partial restructure is unlikely to deliver the business case objectives. This leaves the option to spend some extra money or accept the risks shown above. It is a legitimate practice for a business to accept risks – it’s even an option in the Prince2 manual, believe it or not. However, in my experience, accepting risks like these typically just delays the inevitable. Properly annoying your team and burning out the HR department will result in costs anyway, maybe a bit later and probably a bit higher!

To Summarise

I believe that if you are faced with challenges to scope, time and cost, and assuming as described above, it is possible to use the project triangle along with your assessment of risk, as a useful tool to guide your thinking. It is described as a project management concept but I believe it can be applied to most scenarios where constraints and risk are involved. You don’t even have to admit a Project Manager told you……