Three major things impact a project: how much time a team has to realize the task, the budget that has been allocated for the project, and its scope. These three elements are known as the "triple constraint".
The project management triangle is a way of visualizing these constraints within a simple approach, making it very useful to project managers.
What is the project management triangle?
The project management triangle highlights three of the main constraints a project can have. These are cost, time and scope. It defines a project according to its budget, the timeline constraining it, and the scope associated with its realization.
These will inevitably impact the quality of the project you are part of. As a result, strong strategy mapping is crucial for success.
How do the different elements of the triangle impact one another?
When one point of the triangle changes, it affects the other points as well. This can result in you or your project manager having to alter one or both of the other project constraints at the same time.
Let’s take a look at an example. Say you were working on a project to try and increase the average speed of answer (ASA) for a telecommunications company. You initially plan to reduce it by a third over the course of six months, but upper management requests you cut that time down to four months. In order to meet this new time-based change, you’re likely to incur further costs. This is because the company might need to hire more employees to hit their target.
For a project or product to remain high quality, these three constraints need to be delicately balanced. No variable can be altered without the other two points of the triangle being affected as well. A project manager must always keep the three elements of the project management triangle in control.
In our earlier example, that telecommunications company might move on to increasing the amount of calls they handle in total (scope). Alongside researching best contact center practices, however, they would also need to consider the other two constraints as well. They might be able to keep within a set timeframe, but the costs would increase here, as more staff would need to be hired.
Let’s look at another example. Imagine a business has realized that their brand identity for a certain product isn't very good. This could lead the project manager into investing in learning how to guest post. Here, the biggest change is likely to be the scope of the project - it will expand to encompass related issues like backlink searches and SEO. In this case, the cost increase may be minimal, but the time increase is likely to be huge.
Change one element, and the others have to move around as well. Luckily, there are plenty of free project management software options available to help keep track of this - but before you can start using them, you need to understand…
Each constraint has to be managed properly, so knowing some of the common challenges for each angle can help you be better prepared. Let’s break down a few challenges that a project manager would need to be aware of, for each point of the triangle.
Going over-budget is a huge problem for most projects, and needs to be avoided as much as possible. Overestimating your original costs can help here, as it allows you leeway to deal with the following common issues:
- Additional labor. Sometimes, a project needs expertise brought in from the outside to get the job done and meet deadlines. Or, you simply might not have enough staff on hand for the task.This can be expensive, and if you haven’t factored outsourcing into your budget, this could lead to a project manager having to increase the budget.
- Underestimating costs. Being too optimistic about how much your project will cost is an easy error to fall into. Account for problems that might arise, such as a certain material purchased not being of good enough quality, and estimate accordingly.
- Overheads. If there is a project delay, which could occur for a number of reasons, then a budget will need to be adapted to account for overheads, salaries and other expenses.
Your timescale needs to be feasible, so determine whether or not it is before you begin. It will save you resources further down the line. Make sure you consider:
- Overestimating what your team can do. Being overly optimistic about how much your team can get done in a given period of time is one of the most common mistakes a project manager can make. Creating a realistic schedule and deadline is an important part of a manager’s job.
- Delays outside of a manager's control. Sometimes, a project depends on certain materials or equipment being delivered on time. However, if these external suppliers delay the delivery, this can negatively impact the realization of your project. Make sure you are keeping in contact with your supplier. Remind them about important delivery dates in the run up to a deadline.
- Looking after your staff. If your staff are overworked or feel unmotivated because you have placed too many time-constraints and stressful deadlines on them, then they will simply not produce good quality work on time. Make sure that tasks are spread out evenly within your team, and that your team feels valued and supported throughout the project.
Sometimes, a project manager is asked to add certain things onto a project, after its scope has already been determined. If it’s only a few things, this will probably not have a huge impact, but it still needs to be kept under control by the project manager. Some challenges could include:
- Lack of clarity. If the requirements of a project are not clearly established, then a project is very likely to suffer. Make sure the scope of a project is broken down into clearly defined compartments, to avoid misinterpretation and confusion down the line. The more detail added at the planning stage, the better!
- More elements being added on later. Sometimes, a member of the team will come up with a brilliant idea for something that could be added to the project. This might improve the end result, but could nonetheless derail a project, leading to the whole team losing focus. If the schedule and budget can accommodate for the change, consider implementing it. Otherwise, remaining firm on the scope is key.
- Internal factors. A project manager needs to know when to put their foot down and defend the project they have come up with. Otherwise, certain internal factors can really derail a project. For instance, if you’re developing a set of mobile phone apps, a non-technical manager might decide it should work on PC too! This would be a major undertaking, and knowing how to reject such requests is vital.
Understanding these common challenges can help a project manager plan out their strategy with as few risks to the project as possible. ZenTao has some great resources for project managers looking to improve their strategy, helping you keep the constraint triangle stable throughout your project.
How to use the project management triangle
In an ideal world, a project manager would have all the time, money and creative license to bring a project to life. Unfortunately, this isn’t possible. Project managers must always consider constraints. In the same way that functional testing tools test how well applications are running, the project management triangle tests how viable and efficient a project is.
In order to use the project management triangle effectively, you have to know when to choose your priorities. Doing this requires flexibility, as it is only natural that you will need to make adjustments from time to time. For instance, if a project has a very strict, fixed budget, then be ready to deal with obstacles by changing the timeline of the project, rather than looking to spend more money on hiring extra staff to get the job done.
Moreover, once you have decided on your time, costs and scope, make sure you update your project plan frequently, so that your project is evolving with every new challenge or adversity you might face. And, make sure you keep your whole team up to date when adjustments do happen, so that no stakeholder in the project will feel surprised if something goes wrong.
In an increasingly remote-working world, this can be hard. However, there are plenty of resources that a manager can use to maximize hybrid communication. Consider researching tools like the best meeting minutes app, workforce management software, or instant messaging options.
If you set clear expectations, yet are ready to be flexible should the need arise, then the project management triangle has the potential of being a very useful tool for you.
Time to try the triangle!
The project management triangle is a great visual tool to help a project manager illustrate constraints to both their team and themselves in a very simple way. Without it, a project manager cannot fully envision the varying limitations of a project, risking technical debt further down the line.
Employing the project management triangle can help a project manager organize, communicate and execute a project in the best possible way. This makes it a great addition to a product manager’s toolbox.
Need more help? Check out the Zentao blog. They have more articles on project management, software management, building cross-functional teams, and so much more.
Author bio :
Jenna Bunnell - Senior Manager, Content Marketing, Dialpad
Jenna Bunnell is the Senior Manager for Content Marketing at Dialpad, an AI-incorporated cloud-hosted unified communications system like VoIP service with caller ID that provides valuable call details for business owners and sales representatives. She is driven and passionate about communicating a brand’s design sensibility and visualizing how content can be presented in creative and comprehensive ways. Jenna has alo written for sites such as pretty links and PayTabs. Check out her LinkedIn profile.