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The Triple Constraint They DON'T Teach You In Project Management School

Generally as a consultant, clients hire me because of my experience with project management and accomplishment; however, that doesn't keep me from getting questioned about my technique from time to time.

"Why are you doing that?" or "Why aren't you doing this?" are questions I field on occasion. In my "younger days," I was irritated and even offended by such questions. Nowadays, not so much... it all just rolls off. So what happened to loosen me up? I figured out the triple constaint they DON'T teach you in project management school.

You have probably heard of the triple constraint of project management. It's that trade-off among the schedule, the resources, and the performance that optimizes a project according to the stakeholder wishes (i.e., what your loudest executive wants).


But there's a triple constraint project managers don't learn in a classroom. We learn it on the fly, and generally the ones who "get it" are those who have had the privilege of working in multiple companies. One one side of the equation is Rigor - how much structure is applied to the project. It ranges from flying by the seat of your pants to a military death march of project deliverables, following every template and rule to the letter. On another side of the triangle is Culture - the "personality" of the organization and how well it adapts, adopts, adjusts. Finally is Ability - a combination of the knowledge and skills of the organization to perform everything to be done AND the maturity to prioritize and intuit.

These three - rigor, culture, ability - are in a perpectual volley match. An experienced project manager will size up the trade-offs needed to complete the project. You try to do too much (rigor) in an immature (ability) organization with an unyielding culture and... oops. Try to do too little in an organization with the skills to grow but an inability to prioritize and... oops again.

So when a client asks me why I do (or don't do) something they learned in project management class, I smile a little smile and give them that look that says, "Trust me. I've been down this road before." I'll keep pushing and challenging my clients to grow, but I'm going to meet them where they are. Learning to do this means more success in the future.


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I have been trying to find some information on formulas that help balance these triangles. From what you wrote it sounds like it is definitely possible. I am refering to where you talk about how too much rigor in a certain situation ends up badly and in a different situation it ends a different way. The correlations between the sides and the results are interesting. The resulting center of these triangles doesn't seem to be the direct result but a correlation of the sides. For instance quality can suffer because of the skill or methods used vs because of time, cost, or scope. It seems there is a number there to be noticed but I am not sure what it is. I'm not huge into project management strategies yet and this is all very new to me for how it works out. Mind talking to me about it a bit?

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