Managing projects within constraints inevitably leads to the need to make trade-offs and balancing decisions.

Balancing the project constraints will result in the best outcome for your organisation.

This is a key capability to develop on the road to becoming a successful Project Manager. You’ll soon find yourself using this throughout your projects.

Effectively balancing the project constraints will rely on a range of skills. It will draw on your idea generation and critical thinking. You’ll need to be able to engage and influence stakeholders. You will also find that a healthy dose of business sense will work wonders.

Project constraints often find themselves in one of three groups. Understanding this is the first step.

What are the 3 Project Constraints?

Time. Cost. Quality.

The three characteristics will define the choices that you will make for your deliverable. When making decisions, you’ll need to consider the impact each of these constraints:

  • Time – time taken to develop and deliver (consider time to start realising benefits too).
  • Cost – could be one off costs (e.g. project resource, tooling or set up costs, prototypes) or ongoing operational costs (e.g. labour costs, manufacturing costs etc).
  • Quality – you will want a high quality finish to your project deliverables which don’t fail.

Now, of course, the ideal is to choose all 3. However, the theory is that only two are possible at once:

  • Cheap and Quick = Low quality
  • Quick and Good = Expensive
  • Cheap and Good = Slow to deliver

This balancing act is your challenge to deliver the best result for your business.

Why is it Tricky to Balance Project Constraints?

The three characteristic are closely interlinked, with each being a currency to offset against another. The speed and quality of delivery are often an output of the resources applied – and thus cost.

You’ll find that your different project stakeholders often have different goals too. When one stakeholder will champion decisions that slant towards ‘Time’ benefits, another will want efficient ‘Cost’ and another will demand ‘Quality’. As a consequence, your project can find itself with different options, all with their pros and cons.

How Should You Make Decisions Within Project Constraints?

When you come across major decisions in your project, you should weight up your options against these constraints. Engage your stakeholders to understand the different impacts on these three constraints. Then, you present these options to your stakeholders and drive decisions through your sponsor and governance process.

Here are three ways you can present the options on the table:

Pros and cons list

This is a simple bullet point list against each option, showing the advantages and disadvantages of each. It’s quick to pull together and will be easily understood. Try to keep the bullet point lists “hard hitting”. It’s better to use a handful of points rather than a long list. This will mean it’s easier to see the most important aspects without losing them in more minor considerations.

Tip: Remember to sort your lists into Time, Cost, Quality buckets which will make it easier still to understand.

Rate each project constraint

Using a rating system such as RAG (Red, Amber, Green) to show the impact on time, on cost and on quality. You can then show all of the options against each other which is a visual way of showing the differences. You’ll want some supporting comments to best explain why you are rating an option better or worse than others.

Decision making matrix

A more detailed and robust decision making tool. You can break down into different characteristics that are important to your project. Sort and order them in buckets of Time, Cost and Quality. You can then rank or score each option against the others. Again, you’ll want to use comments to validate why you are making these scores.

But What if You Really Need to Meet All 3 Project Constraints?

Sometimes, you may yourself in such a tight situation that you feel that you need to meet all three constraints. What should you do then? Well, there are a couple of options on the table here…

1. Work harder, work smarter

You’ll need to get more done in less time. You will need to up your game here to get out of the tight situation. But, you may find that thinking and working more productively may offer up some new options too.

2. Consider scope as a constraint

The other option is to scale back on the project scope that you’re looking at. This could be looking at a minimum viable product (MVP) or could look at splitting into phases that are covered as separate projects.

Manage Your Project Constraints To Deliver Successfully

Managing constraints will help you guide your project through the various obstacles, barriers and pitfalls in your project. Not using this approach could lead to procrastination, wrong decision making and stakeholder frustration. Knowing how to approach these situations and how to weigh up your options will allow you the fastest and most effective way to safe delivery.

project management expert Oliver BanksAbout the Author

Oliver Banks is an expert retail project and programme manager. He originally managed projects in the technology industry before moving to Tesco and starting to deliver retail improvement. Oliver is passionate about helping retailers to deliver projects to improve stores, distribution and head office operations.


project management expert Oliver Banks

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