Turning Constraints into Resources
Publication date: 06/01/2007
Into the Sixth Dimension!
We grow sometimes in one dimension and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another.
Management writers have pillaged the lives of leaders both real (Attila the Hun) and fictional (Jean-Luc “Make-It-So” Picard of the starship Enterprise) to illustrate the principles of management effectiveness, even going so far as to call our attention to the royal companions of Oz who join Dorothy in her quest to find the wizard: what a leader I could be “if I only had a brain … a heart … the noive!”1
Project management is a discipline of the trenches, however, not of the classroom. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge® (PMBOK® Guide2) notwithstanding, that which is valuable and vital in the project management body of knowledge was developed primarily by practicing project managers, with the peculiar heroism that is specific to the breed. Traditionally, the project manager struggles with inadequate resources and a too-tight schedule while striving toward excellence—and surprisingly often achieves it. And this achievement comes in the face of a lack of sufficient formal positional authority, customers who may not know what they want (but who nevertheless recognize when you don’t give it to them), and an environment in which project objectives mutate like fungus in a cheap horror movie.
STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS
We learn from those who have gone before us. Sir Isaac Newton said, “If I see farther than other men, it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants.” Pablo Picasso made this advice operational: “Mediocre artists borrow. Great artists steal.” Acquiring and learning from role models is an acceptable form of thievery. We learn positive lessons from others’ successes and cautions from others’ failures. To which we add Carl Sagan: “[T]he fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”
As we take arms against a sea of project management troubles, we pit our brain, our heart, and our nerve against the triple constraints of time, cost, and performance (see Figure 1-1). Let us stand on the shoulders of Isaac Newton’s giants, learn from Carl Sagan’s bozos, and (pace Picasso) practice pilfering project management ideas wherever they may be found.
Our guiding principle here will be: Why do things the hard way? What can we learn from those who have gone before? Some projects, to be sure, go more or less according to plan, and problems are manageable. More often, it sometimes seems, a project is like the S.S. Minnow, a vast wasteland. Your planned three-hour cruise gets hijacked by an unexpected storm, and all too soon you find yourself cast away with a big pile of unopened FedEx boxes on a desert isle talking to a painted volleyball about your problems.
Take these begged, borrowed, or stolen insights and apply them operationally. “Operational” comes from military use and in this context will be used to identify what I can learn from others and apply as a rule of thumb, so that my project and I don’t end up cast away on that deserted isle.
The experiences of others build the tools of project management, allowing us to excavate hidden resources and opportunities within each project. Unlocking the mysteries of the critical path, we find slack and the ability to reallocate resources. Through effective risk planning, we eliminate many problems before they have a chance to occur. From the triple constraints, we discover the central reason for the project and find a hidden source of flexibility and creative opportunity.
These last two—flexibility and creative opportunity—we argue, are the essential tools for maximizing project results.
GOOD, FAST, OR CHEAP? PICK TWO
The triple constraints derive from the three essential questions of project management:
• “How long do I have?
• “How much can I spend? (money and resources)
• “What exactly does this puppy have to do, anyway?”
Answering these questions is the first concern of a project manager, and they relate to this fundamental—yet surprisingly unexplored—concept in project management. The triple constraints derive from the definition of a project in the PMBOK® Guide: “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service.”3
Fig. 1-1. The three fundamental constraints of time, cost, and performance set the borders of your project universe.
The PMBOK® Guide section 1.2, which contains this definition, also identifies by implication another important characteristic of projects: they take place inside organizations. And in every organization, from the time of the pyramids down to the present day, regardless of subject matter or sector, there is a practically infinite amount of useful, desirable stuff that needs to be done (for projects and ongoing work), and finite resources with which to do them. It follows, therefore, that every time we give you a dollar, or a body, or a week for your project, that’s a dollar, a body, or a week we can’t give someone else for a job that also has merit.
The result is scarcity, and scarcity gives us the triple constraints: a deadline, a budget, and at least a minimum level of acceptable performance. Choices must be made, priorities must be set, and project managers must still get the job done. When the going gets tough, the tough get going (and sometimes that means getting your résumé spruced up so you can go on your own timetable).
For project managers from the novice to the most experienced and senior, triple constraints issues are at the core of the most crucial decisions about a project. Reading them correctly can unlock huge resources that make impossible projects possible. Failure to understand them, interpret them, and exploit them correctly can doom your project, even if all else is done to a high standard of excellence.
Why is this so? First and foremost, it occurs because managing projects is the art of creating a deliverable under difficult and in some cases impossible constraints. There is little we cannot accomplish given unlimited stores of time and wealth along with extremely flexible project requirements. But that, of course, is seldom the project manager’s lot in life.
Moreover, the constraints lead us to that most valuable of project management benefits: the discovery of hidden resources and opportunities within the established boundaries.
The secret of the triple constraints, to our great fortune, is that they are not equally constraining. They exist in a hierarchy of driver, middle, and weak constraint. The driver must be met or the project fails. The weak, at the other extreme, has the greatest flexibility, and that flexibility gives us opportunity. What’s worst? Miss a deadline, go over budget, or fail to deliver every iota of the expected performance? In practice, it all depends on the situation.
On any given project, the triple constraints form themselves into a natural hierarchy. As the joke says, “Do you want it good, fast, or cheap? Pick two.” There’s normally a reason why a particular hierarchy produces the best outcomes. Six possible combinations offer different challenges and different opportunities. All projects of the same pattern (for example, time, cost, and performance) have important characteristics in common: challenges, opportunities, and management issues. These are the “six dimensions” of project management and of this book’s title (see Table 1-1).
By learning to recognize the proper hierarchy and constraints for your project (your project dimension) and knowing the most likely problems and some special resources each dimension offers, you’ll have more tools to help you get the job done on time, on budget, to spec, and with a happy customer at the end.
Table 1-1. The Six Dimensions of the Triple Constraints
THE $64,000 QUESTION4
We don’t do projects for our health. As Woody Allen observed in another context (it’s the joke with which he ends Annie Hall), we do it because we need the eggs. We need the output of the project, the benefit that the project is intended to supply. The goal of the project, not the project itself, is the prime mover. Don’t forget it.
So what’s the $64,000 question? It’s “Why?” Why are we doing this project? Why not a different project? Why this direction? Why this outcome? Why these specifications? Why not other ones?
The driver of the project isn’t chosen or decided on but is rather discovered growing organically out of the project’s purpose. What must we accomplish to be successful—or, contrawise, what failures might be fatal to our project? And remember, if the customer or client hasn’t figured out the purpose enough to explain the “why” when asked, then it’s a dangerous idea to start the project. Customers who don’t know what they want at the outset always seem to know when you haven’t delivered what they want at the end.
Interestingly, the 2004 PMBOK® Guide shows a content shift from the 2000 PMBOK® Guide, recognizing a need to identify the “why” behind a project.5 We predict that asking the question “why” will increasingly become standard among project management best practices.
HOLDING YOUR HORSES
Although the fundamental concept of the triple constraints is fairly straightforward, its implications are numerous and sometimes subtle, and they often come as a surprise to project managers, even quite senior ones. The study of the triple constraints is one of the most overlooked fundamentals of project management. On its foundation, you can build a substantial and powerful understanding of your project that can empower you through a wide range of challenges.
Without the triple constraints, projects run the risk of becoming divorced from purpose. Alfred L. Loomis, the Wall Street tycoon and amateur scientist who invented ultrasound, financed the development of the cyclotron, and oversaw the development of radar, told this story of his World War I days at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, where he served as the military officer in charge of the research and development (R&D) division. While working with a unit of cannoneers, he was puzzled to notice that one soldier walked 50 paces in back of the rest of the unit and would stand at attention for hours at a time with one arm slightly raised. Curious, Loomis inquired as to his role. It turned out that this soldier historically was the one who held the horses. The horses had been replaced, but the soldier remained on the job.6
When a project manager and a team are assigned to a project, there’s pressure, both internal and external, to get started ASAP. Where’s the project plan? How soon can we see the first deliverable? Have we finished writing down the specifications and requirements? Although the desire to be productive is commendable, the rush to get busy often proves counterproductive. The “why” is assumed rather than explored and examined, with consequences that may not become fully apparent until much later—and perhaps much too late—in the project life cycle. Questions such as the following may help client and project manager alike gain a much deeper understanding of the why—and consequently the what—of the project at hand:
• What is the problem we’re trying to solve or the opportunity we’re hoping to exploit?
• Is this the best way to do it? Have we considered other ways to achieve the underlying objective?
• What are the potential side effects of this project? Will we create new problems in the attempt to solve the issue at hand?
• How will the environment be different when the project is finished? What new behaviors or actions will take place using the product or function created by the project?
While holding nonexistent horses is a wasteful thing, it’s often valuable to remind yourself and members of your project team to hold your horses just a little bit when starting your project. Slow down at the outset long enough to figure out what the real objective is. You’ll make up the time—and more—by the problems you’ll avoid when you get busy.
In this book, we’ve compiled a cross-section of past projects that offer colorful lessons and insights about the triple constraints. We’ll explore these six dimensions through these projects, discovering common principles that can be transferred to your own projects. Of necessity, we should note, there has been some simplification and abstraction of details.
For each project:
• Answer the question “why do we need the project?”
• Determine the dimension (hierarchy of the triple constraints) into which the project falls
• Apply those answers operationally (we’ll also identify rules you can take across the boundary into your own projects)
• Learn how flexibility and the right kinds of failure can be the key to project success
To begin, we offer a comparison of how understanding—or failing to understand—a project’s triple constraints hierarchy affects the project outcome. Following a deeper analysis of the triple constraints, each section contains several illustrative project cases.
Other chapters will show you how to analyze your own project to discover its proper dimension, how to deal with projects whose stakeholders pull it into cross-dimensional rifts, and how to use the special resources associated with triple constraint analysis to find creative and powerful solutions to your projects.
Your Mission, Mr. Phelps7
The purpose of this book is to stimulate your thinking about your own projects. Your projects are the ones that really matter. As you’re reading these cases, ask yourself how these situations might echo projects with which you’ve been involved, and whether these new insights and tools would have made changes in the decisions and approaches you took in managing the projects. Consider the following:
• Have I been involved in a project with the same triple constraints hierarchy (for example, “time, cost, performance,” or “performance, time, cost”)
• Which issues in this case have paralleled issues in projects I’ve experienced? How did the problems and solutions compare with those I faced?
• How would knowing the order of constraints and applying the techniques in the book have changed my actions and outcomes?
Think about your current projects as well. What problems, challenges, and risks are you facing? Where will you get the resources and reserves necessary to face them? Apply the same questions to your future projects and consider how exploiting the flexibility in the weak constraint to meet the absolute requirement of the driver might help you develop a strategy for managing risks and resources on your new project.
When the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems look like nails. There are no universal tools, and the practical project manager cultivates a rich collection of tools to be sure of having something useful to fit any occasion. But some tools get used more often than others, and for us, the triple constraints and hierarchy of constraints are the first tools out of the box on any new project. We believe you’ll find them every bit as useful on your own projects.
1. Every time we give you a dollar, or a body, or a week for your project, that’s a dollar, a body, or a week we can’t give someone else for a job that also has merit. The result is scarcity, and scarcity gives us the triple constraints: a deadline, a budget, and at least a minimum level of acceptable performance.
2. The triple constraints exist in a hierarchy of driver, middle, and weak constraint. The driver we have to meet, or else the project fails. The weak, at the other extreme, has the greatest flexibility, and that flexibility gives us opportunity.
3. All projects of the same pattern (for example, time, cost, and performance) have important characteristics in common: challenges, opportunities, and management issues.
4. The most important—and most often overlooked—question in project management is “Why?” If the customer or client hasn’t figured out the purpose enough to explain the “why” when asked, then you’re not ready to start.
5. Hold your horses. Slow down at the outset long enough to identify the real objective. You’ll make up the time—and more—by the problems you’ll avoid when you get busy.
1Nerve, in Bert Lahr’s tough-guy Cowardly Lion voice, along with the Scarecrow’s brain and the Tin Woodman’s heart.
2Project Management Institute, A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), 3rd ed. (Newtown Square, Pennsylvania: Project Management Institute, 2004), 4.
3 PMBOK® Guide, 5.
4The $64,000 question was (a) a TV game show rocked by scandal, (b) a companion to the Defense Department’s $300 hammer and $500 toilet seat, (c) Michael’s standard consulting fee, or (d) the cost of the PMP® exam. Do you want to phone a friend, ask the audience, or go 50/50? If your final answer is “a,” you’re only five more questions away from the million dollar jackpot.
5See PMBOK® Guide, sections 4.1 and 4.2, referencing business need and business case.
6Jennet Conant, Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), 34–35.
7From the opening of every Mission: Impossible episode.
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