Living With The Iron Triangle

The project management triangle (cost, quality, timeliness) sits at the heart of every project.  When initiating a project, I always like to ask my clients which way their triangle sits.  Is cost at the top (most important)?  Is quality at the top?  Is it quality and cost at the top?  What is it? I usually get a deer-in-the-headlights response.  I hear my client thinking, “Is this a trick?”  “How am I supposed to pick this?”  “What does she have in mind?”   This rapid thinking is then followed by a variety of stalling tactics.  “Can we talk about this later?”  “Well, I need all three of these things.”

Thinking through and prioritizing the triangle (however scary) set the tone for the project. Similar to a project charter, it sets up how the project will go.  When the tough part of the project comes up, you don’t need to stop and reconsider the triangle -- you mutually understand that this project is all about cost and quality (and therefore timeliness is less important).  That doesn’t mean duration isn’t a factor --it just means it takes a back seat to the others.

The trinity can be revised at different times in the life of project.  This is particularly useful when you are doing a large project that extends over a period to time.  In the discovery phase of the project, timeliness and quality might be at the top.  The discover needs to be complete by a certain date in order for the next phase to start.  The development work might have a triangle with quality on top and cost and timeliness on the bottom.

Working through the triangle with your client needs to happen: be prepared for this discussion to take place over several meetings, particularly if the client hasn’t worked with you before.  Be patient, but get an agreement and publish it.  It seems trivial but it is in fact a powerful underlying principle that contributes to the success of a project.