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The Triple Constraints in Project Management

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From the novice to the most experienced and senior project manager, triple constraint issues are at the core of the most crucial decisions about a project. The Triple Constraints in Project Management explores the triangle of time, cost, and performance that bounds the universe within which every project must be accomplished – and shows how controlling the hierarchy of constraints can mean the difference between success and failure on virtually any project.

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CHAPTER 1   The Art of Strategic Failure

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You probably won’t see American Movie Classics run a festival of “Great Project Management Movies” any time soon, but if they did, Ron Howard’s motion picture Apollo 13, based on the real-life story, would be a natural candidate. Faced with a potentially disastrous accident, project teams overcome one potentially fatal barrier after another to bring the crew safely back to the earth, guided by mission director Gene Kranz’ mantra, “Failure is not an option.”

But, of course, failure is an option. Sometimes, in fact, it looks like the most likely option of all. The odds in the actual Apollo 13 disaster were stacked against a happy outcome, and everyone—including Gene Kranz—had to be well aware of that fact. At the same time, letting the idea of failure into your mind can be a psychological trap that leads you to premature surrender.

Within the overall project “Get the astronauts home safely,” there are a number of subprojects, including:

Develop a power-up sequence that draws fewer than 20 amps.

 

CHAPTER 2   The Triple Constraints: Time, Cost, and Performance

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A project takes place inside an organization or system. Like many statements about a project—“a project ends,” for example—a characteristic that’s obvious on the face of it has consequences that are much less obvious.

An organization or system has nearly an infinite amount of useful, desirable work that could be done, but has limited and finite resources available with which to do that work. Choices must be made. Each choice consumes resources that could otherwise serve a different need.

Even though we’ve made the choices we (or someone) presumably think best, if we use our limited resources efficiently, we get to do more things. If we give you a spendable resource, such as cash, or a resource allocated over time, like a person, for your project, we can’t use the same resource to gain something else we want.

That’s why the first technique almost any manager learns is “the squeeze.” Budgets and schedules can normally take some degree of squeezing, and if the project can be accomplished with less, that’s good for the organization. (There are managers who seem never to learn any technique other than the squeeze, but that’s a different issue.)

 

CHAPTER 3   The Hierarchy of Constraints

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We’ve determined that one of the most powerful secrets of the triple constraints comes from ranking them in the order of their priority and impact on the project—that is, deciding which pig is more equal than the other two.

The three terms we use to describe the order of the triple constraints in a hierarchy are:

Driver. The driver is the constraint that cannot fail without dragging the project down to failure along with it. The flexibility of the driver is not necessarily zero, but it is less than the flexibility of the other two constraints. The consequence of failure is serious, visible, and not excusable by the level of success achieved in the remaining constraints, even if that success surpassed expectations. “We built a really great CO2 filter using half as many parts!” doesn’t even begin to mitigate the consequence of having taken too long.

Middle constraint. Besides the obvious characteristic of being, well, in the middle, the middle constraint normally has a small amount of flexibility. Middle constraints can sometimes be very close to the driver in importance to the project mission, almost seeming like a second driver; other times, only the driver is very strict and the middle constraint has flexibility more akin to the weak constraint. In the first case, you’ll seek almost all your flexibility in the weak constraint; in the latter, you have two to play with.

 

CHAPTER 4   Strategies for Managing Time-Driven Projects

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There is a structural bias in many of the tools of project management in favor of time as the driver of the project. Cost management tools are derived for the most part from counterparts in the finance and accounting world, reasonably enough (earned value analysis being the notable exception), and performance management tools are necessarily topic-specific. The tools most famously associated with the project manager’s toolbox—the Gantt Chart, PERT, CPM—manage the time constraint. After all, the characteristic that all projects have in common is that they end (or at least they are supposed to).

The seriousness with which the project manager should enforce a deadline that lies on the critical path must be related to the relative priority of meeting the deadline as contrasted with coming in on budget or achieving an exceptional level of performance. It may be better for the project to choose a particular delay in schedule if the alternatives are compromises in budget or performance.

 

CHAPTER 5   Strategies for Managing Performance-Driven Projects

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When the performance criteria drive a project, the technically oriented project manager often feels that quality is in the driver’s seat. As we’ve observed, it’s important to distinguish between the performance criteria and quality. Quality is what they want. Performance is what you do. Clearly, the two are related, but they’re not identical.

Salespeople are taught to distinguish between “features” and “benefits.” A feature is a specific characteristic of the product or service itself, such as the chip speed or hard drive size. A benefit is the value it provides the customer—a large hard drive can store your teenager’s entire collection of illegally downloaded music or, more professionally, let you keep all the information about several major projects together on your laptop at the same time.

In our triple constraints model, the “benefit” is the why of the project and the “feature” is the description of what it is we must perform. As part of the process of project scope management, PMBOK® Section 5.1.1.1 states, “The product description should also document the relationship between the product or service being created and the business need or other stimulus that gave rise to the project” in a way that is detailed enough to support later planning.1 In other words, the “why” must be part of a properly written product description to ensure full understanding of the characteristics and requirements that must be achieved.

 

CHAPTER 6   Strategies for Managing Cost-Driven Projects

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When the cost constraint is the driver of the project, there’s a problem. A project should contribute substantially more value than it costs, or there’s a real question whether we should be doing the project at all. Therefore, a “normal” project usually has some cost flexibility.

If that’s true, then why would cost ever become the driver? First, because the resources simply aren’t available or don’t exist. As we’ve observed on the Apollo 13 CO2 filter project, the lives of the astronauts were worth a lot more money than the parts on the table, but the cost constraint was nonnegotiable; it was simply a fact. If the resources aren’t there, the fact that you might need them—even that lives might depend upon them—is unfortunately beside the point.

A second reason is that the project might have a low priority in the organization. It’s worth doing, but other projects have a higher value, and there aren’t enough resources for all projects to be funded generously. If you have a low-status project, it’s part of your responsibility to yield right-of-way (and resources) to projects of higher status. Of course, it’s also legitimate to make the case for increasing your project’s priority, as long as you do so with an understanding of the organizational issues at stake. It’s also legitimate to argue that the project has so low a priority and claim on organizational resources that it is better put out of its misery. After all, we remember the project management lesson in the classic Disney film Old Yeller: sometimes a man’s got to be able to shoot his own dog.

 

CHAPTER 7   Conflict Management and Multiple Stakeholders

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In the ideal project management world, customers and senior managers make project decisions based on organizational mission, vision, and values. These decisions are clear, unambiguous, and without hidden political agenda. Your mission may be challenging, but it’s fair. Often it is.

Sometimes it isn’t. There is often variance in how different people answer, “Why do I care about this project?” If the variance is small, there are fewer opportunities for conflict. If the variance is large, conflict is more likely. People view the triple constraints differently, and conflict erupts over issues of schedule, resource use, and performance.

Ask each stakeholder, “Why are we doing this project?” and you’ll get a different answer. With each answer, you’ll end up with a different set of triple constraints and worse yet, a different hierarchy of constraints.

For one set of project customers, speed of delivery is the most important criterion, because if they get your product late, their process fails. For them, time is the project’s driver, and don’t try to tell them anything different. But your comptroller calls to tell you that cash flow has been very poor, and from the finance department’s perspective, you’d better think of this as a cost-driven project all the way. Worse yet, you must submit your product to a regulatory process that could care less about your deadlines or your cost problems, and only cares about the performance standards. Three key stakeholders, three different project drivers. You cannot safely ignore any one of them. How can you manage such a project?

 

CHAPTER 8   The Power of Three

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Management writers have pillaged the lives of leaders real (Attila the Hun) and fictional (Jean-Luc Picard of the starship Enterprise) to illustrate principles of management effectiveness, even going so far as to call our attention to the Royal Companions of Oz who join Dorothy in her quest to find the Wizard: What a leader I could be “if I only had a brain … a heart … the noive!”

Perhaps Hollywood really should make movies about project managers, because there is a peculiar heroism specific to the breed. Traditionally, the project manager struggles with inadequate resources and a too-tight schedule while striving toward excellence—and surprisingly often achieves it! This achievement often comes in the face of a lack of sufficient formal positional authority, customers who may not know what they want (but who nevertheless recognize when you don’t give it to them), and an environment where project objectives mutate like fungus in a cheap horror movie.

As we take arms against a sea of project management troubles, we know we are pitting our brain, our heart, and our nerve against the triple constraints of time, cost, and performance.

 

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