Published here December 2003.


Musings Index

Triangles, Sex and Simplicity

We went to a project management presentation the other day and the subject of "The Iron Triangle" was brought up. We think that if the term, and what it implies in the project management field is mentioned one more time we shall either be driven to shoot the perpetrator, or commit suicide. For the uninitiated, the iron triangle, or triple constraint, or Holy Trinity, or whatever it happens to be called, is supposed to represent the three constraining goals, objectives or targets of the classic project. According to whomsoever you talk, that might mean "scope, time and cost ", "time, cost and performance", "time, cost and technology", and so on.

So, what happened to quality? The fact is, there are four variables involved in balancing the management constraints on a project and those are scope, quality, time and cost. And they need to be in reasonable balance if the project is to be successful on all four dimensions. In reality, of course they rarely are and one or more need to be compromised depending on the priorities of the project in question. We will avoid further discussion here of this topic and the consequent validity of wild reports of numbers of project failures.

Instead, the point we are making is that we are dealing with a square and not a triangle and, incidentally, the serious omission of the quality dimension. We asked one of the meeting participants "What happened to quality?" The respondent shot back, "That's part of Scope Definition." Not in our book, quality is part of Requirements Definition. We got into a hassle over which authority says what on the subject and it transpired that we had a bypass in communication and were talking about two different aspects of quality. For our part we were referring to Quality Grade, whereas our respondent was talking about Conformance to Requirements, with names like Demming and Juran being bandied about.

How can you have two types of quality? Simple. Before you can "conform to requirements", those requirements first have to be established and such requirements are an interdependent variable, i.e. one of the four corners of our square. In other words the setting of the quality baseline against which quality control can be established. That baseline constitutes the quality grade required by the project. Heck, this is even made clear in the current 2000 version of the Project Management Institute's Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge ("PMBOK") for those who care to study it that closely. Still, it seems to continue to be an elusive concept for a lot of otherwise clever people.

To illustrate this, let's use this classic simple analogy. Suppose we have to go downtown for a meeting. We can view this as a project, after all it has a clear objective, a scope with a fairly well established set of activities including a "getting ready" work package, a limited time between start and finish and a budget. But in this example, the quality dimension is unspecified. The quality is variable and depending on the grade will have a significant impact on the project and its outcome. For example, we could choose to get downtown by walking, cycling, renting a taxi cab, driving our own car and so on. Which would you choose? That probably depends on your circumstances and the constraints imposed by the other three of the four sides of our square. Which one you choose will have a significant impact on the quality of your condition upon arrival!

This is not exactly a new concept. After all, we have been writing about it since the publication of the first Project Management Body of Knowledge published by the Project Management Institute back in 1987. True it was depicted there as a four-cornered star, but the configuration is the same. And that was sixteen years ago. The mind boggles at the rate of progress. The iron triangle has to be pretty rusty by now.

Once we got ourselves sorted out with our respondent, we asked why they continued to use the "Iron Triangle" as a construct. The response to that question was that it went down well with clients. What a motivation! We suppose anyone is free to flog second-rate concepts and go on doing so if it makes money, but we would hardly call that a product of professional quality grade.

Some years ago, we asked a similar question of Dr. Francis Hartman of the University of Calgary why he continued to use the triangle by way of illustration of his project management concepts. He replied that the triangle is more sexy. He has a point. This connection seems to date back to the days of the ancient Greeks, the Parthenon at Athens and a rather crude stone carving depicting the focus of men's interest in the female form to provide direction to visitors bent on participating in the activities within.

Hartman also added that the mathematics of a triangle are much simpler than that of a square when it comes to analyzing the relationships between three variables rather than four. He has another good point. So, I suppose we are going to have to put up with the reality that sex and simplicity will continue to rule the day. What a shame!

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