Understanding project constraints

There’s no such thing as the perfect project. Because the perfect project would come with unlimited time, unlimited resources and a big yellow ribbon to tie on top of it when it’s done. But even the best projects run into constraints. We need to identify, acknowledge and consciously manage these constraints. Otherwise, they end up managing us.

You’re probably familiar with the three main constraints on any project: time, cost and quality. They’re most commonly summed up in the adage ‘Good, cheap, quick: Choose two’.

Time relates to how quickly we can complete the project. Cost is about how much you are going to have to pay for it. And quality is about how good the end result is going to be. Each constraint is influenced by the others, hence the adage above.

Say you’re getting someone to build you a new house. You want it ready by Christmas, so your builder has brought in some other builders to help her. This makes the construction process quicker, but it costs more. You don’t want to pay more, so your builder rushes the job and cuts some corners. The quality of the finished house suffers.

These same constraints play out on pretty much all projects. The key is to determine which constraints are important to you. And to remember that you can’t have it all.

But time, cost and quality are not the only constraints. As approaches to the managment of complex projects become more nuanced, we find more constraints that need to be addressed. The most common ones are scope, benefits and risk.

The scope of a project is, broadly speaking, its objectives or what you want it to achieve. Reducing the scope of a project can help you to manage constraints of time and cost without impacting on quality.

So if you desperately want your house completed by Christmas, don’t want to pay more and don’t particularly want it to fall down due to shoddy workmanship, you could perhaps opt for a smaller house or one without a triple garage and hot tub.

The benefits of the project are, essentially, its value to you or to your organisation. They’re closely linked to the scope, in my view, but it can’t hurt to have two ways of looking at something. And like the scope, we can opt to relinquish some of the desired benefits of the project to make it cheaper, quicker or both.

Say you want your house to be a pleasant place to live, to offer a secure home for your family and to provide you with space to indulge in your hobbies. These are all valuable benefits. But if you decide that space for your hobbies isn’t as important as being in for Christmas or not having to increase your mortgage, you’ve relaxed a critical constraint that might just make the project feasible.

The risk inherent to the project is the chance that things might not go according to plan. Placing tight constraints on a project can increase risk because they force people to work in a different way or to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do. This might work out just fine, of course, but we don’t know that in advance.

Your builder, for example, might opt to use a new form of roofing on your house, because it’s cheaper than traditional roofing methods and quicker to construct. It might be brilliant, but it might also result in you, at the first sign of rain, having an indoor pool where you didn’t want one.

Whether you’re building a house, planning a consultancy project or implementing a new finance system, all projects have constraints. Sometimes they’re obvious, sometimes they’re not. But they’re always there. If you can’t find them, you’re just not looking hard enough.

While some constraints may require little more than a bit of tinkering with the project scope or budget, others can very quickly make the whole project fall apart.

So whatever the nature of the project, it is important to identify the constraints that exist, to acknowledge their existence and to find a suitable balance between them. Not just because it’s good project management practice. But because not doing so is a sure-fire route to bigger problems later on.

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