An updated version of
a paper first published
in PM World Today, February 2008
©Randall L. Englund.
Published here June 2008.

Introduction | The Project Management Institute's Work | Definitions of Project Success
The Process of Project Management | Working Within Constraints
 Be Careful Making Decisions Under Pressure | The Project Manager's Garden

Working Within Constraints

A project manager has to manage every project within four constraints: two as inputs and two as outputs or consequences. These are: Scope and Quality as requirement inputs and time and cost as consequences. In other words, "Tell me what you want and how good, and I'll tell you how long it will take and how much it will cost" but you may recognize the mantra as: "I want the product good, fast, and cheap."

A triangle is a favored image and can be illustrated by Microsoft's quality triangle as shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5: The four project constraints
Figure 5: The four project constraints[1]

If all four constraints are specified in advance, the reality is that you can only provide three out of four - unless you happen to be extremely lucky. Therefore, work with the sponsor and team to prioritize the most important and most constrained element. Is a deadline looming, such as a trade show, new product release date, or Y2K-like deadline that must be met? If so, time is obviously the most critical. Or does the project require a set of specifications to be met? In which case, quality is the most critical. Or do what you can within the budget available? In that situation, the project stops when the money runs out.

Once you know the most important element, next identify the second most important, moderately flexible, and then the third and fourth, most flexible element. Use this agreement about priorities when making trade-off decisions. When creeping elegance appears, question if the feature is important for the first release or if it can be delayed to a subsequent project. When the customer pushes up the deadline, negotiate what features to drop. When resources are pulled away, arrange for more time to complete the project. Check the priorities from time to time - it is surprising how they can change as projects progress. When multiple projects get dropped on your shoulders, work with the manager or sponsor to prioritize them. Get agreement to focus on the most important projects.

It takes courage to push back during these times. Act with conviction by drawing upon the universal interaction of these elements. They are the principles that determine success or failure. Do not set yourself up for failure by accepting impossible or unrealistic demands. You become more credible when you come from a data and process driven approach, not personal preference. Constantly refer back to the project goal, your commitment to it, and the latest priorities when under pressure. And, of course, document all changes.

The Process of Project Management  The Process of Project Management

1. The Quality Angle displayed in Microsoft Office Online >Assistance >Office 2000 >Project 2000 at, 2003, accessed in March 2004, slightly re-arranged.
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