Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Fast, Good, Cheap, and _______

The Triple Constraint or Project Management Triangle is a device that describes opposing variables in project management. The variation that I'm most familiar with has the three sides of the triangle representing: Fast, Good, and Cheap. The principle is that, when applied to a project, one variable must suffer at the expense of the other two, whichever one that is, or vice versa. For example, you can have a project run fast and deliver a good product but it won't be cheap.

Who says you have to sacrifice though? It's really not a "who" but a "what", which I recognize thanks to a recent post by Catherine Powell. (Our models differ but it's because of her that my brain got to thinking about this.) There's a fourth project component missing from the model and that's Scope. The fourth variable necessitates compromise but before talking about how Scope comes into play, let's review how the Project Management Triangle works. There is a variable for each side of the triangle A, B, and C and a fourth variable for the perimeter of the triangle D. The perimeter is fixed so that no matter what, A + B + C = D. If A increases, B and/or C must decrease. If A and B increase, C must decrease.

Why does the perimeter have to be fixed? Let's face it, most projects, if not all, have one thing that is 100% non-negotiable. In the Fast, Good, Cheap model, this is Scope. Without answering "what is this project about" you really don't have a project. Even if a project has more than one "non-negotiable," one will still trump the other.

As you may have recognized, the three sides of the triangle are not permanently designated Fast (Timeline), Good (Quality), and Cheap (Cost). Rather, the three sides are that which is not the paramount non-negotiable perimeter.

For Example
Timeline: The client needs a website to go live at the same time as a huge marketing campaign
Quality: The website must adhere to government regulations
Scope: The functionality of the website has to include everything specified
Cost: The expense of the project cannot go one penny over

Let's now apply these variables to the sides of the triangle. When a side of the triangle is benefited, it gets longer but it gets shorter when penalized.

Variable Benefited Penalized
Timeline Decreases Increases
Quality Increases Decreases
Scope Increases Decreases
Cost Decreases Increases

Using the Fast, Good, Cheap model for the three sides, let's say Scope is our fixed perimeter with a non-negotiable set of requirements. Let's say the company wants a bigger profit margin, which is in essence cutting the cost. If we want it to stay on time, the quality will suffer because of reduced testing. If we want it to maintain quality, the timeline will suffer because of less-skilled (i.e. cheaper) labor.

Under ideal circumstances, we'll have an equilateral triangle. This requires doing your homework up front. Figure out what your non-negotiable variable is and then set the remaining variables based on that. Doing this should minimize the need to make compromises enabling you to not have to change anything. If change is necessary and compromises are undesirable, the only way to change the perimeter is to change the contract either through a change order or a completely new contract.


  1. Whoa there - you're bringing up things that I've experienced in my career being half systems, half PM at times.

    1. Ironically, I'm not in project management but one of the aspects I enjoy about my company is that my voice is welcomed on any topic. Nobody says, "You're QA, mind your own business." The truth is, it's all our collective business, and whatever experience, insight, or opinion I have is encouraged. I also understand that not everyone agrees with me or that I might even be wrong and I welcome that feedback. Lately, I've felt like I've had a lot of insight into PM to share so I share.