Three Competing Constraints of Project Quality

What Happens When One Has Saks Fifth Avenue Taste with a Dollar Store Budget?

Sometimes I have a new client come to me with a specific idea of what their website should be with a budget for the project and a deadline. This is great! The rub comes when those three things are not compatible.

What comes to mind is a long-standing model I learned back in my corporate project manager and quality analyst days: the Project Management Triangle (aka Triple Constraint).

Unless you have an unlimited budget, no deadline, and want everything under the sun, most small business owners will likely need to prioritize which of the following is the most important to them: Cost (Budget/Resources), Time (Deadline), or Scope (Features).

Project Management Triangle

It is helpful to understand early on which is the most important, and which is the least priority to the Client, before the first tap on the keyboard for the proposal creation.

If the scope, budget and deadline cannot all be met, then changes can be suggested in the proposal that makes trades between the constraints while addressing the Client’s higher priority constraints.

A change in one constraint may necessitate changes in others to compensate or quality will suffer.

For example, a project can be completed faster by increasing budget or cutting scope. Similarly, increasing scope may require equivalent increases in budget and schedule. Cutting budget without adjusting schedule or scope will lead to lower quality.

“Good, fast, cheap. Choose two.” is often used to encapsulate the triangle’s constraints concisely.¹

This concept is also important when changes are made on an in-progress project. Let’s say the three constraints are in balance, then the deadline is moved up suddenly. To maintain project quality, perhaps the scope needs to be adjusted, or more people will need to be hired. When it is understood whether the scope or budget is more important in this example, the right decision can be made.


Project: Get from LA to Essex Junction, VT

  • Budget: $900
  • Time: 10 hours
  • Scope: 2 people

OK no problem. Take a commercial flight with one connection.

But what happens if Ned in accounting needs to go too? I.e., the scope has changed. What is more important? Budget or time? The budget would need to increase to accommodate one more plane ticket. Or to meet the budget and rent a car, the time constraint would not be met. When you know which of the 3 constraints you are most willing to compromise on, it makes alternative decisions more clear.

Which of the three constraints, cost, time or scope, are you the most flexible on for your website project?

Footnote: In real-life, trading between constraints is not always possible. For example, throwing money (and people) at a fully staffed project can slow it down. Moreover, in poorly run projects it is often impossible to improve budget, schedule or scope without adversely affecting quality.¹

¹Reference: Wikipedia



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