Project managers play a critical role in any organization. They’re tasked with the complex job of managing a project from concept to completion and delivering high quality results to their clients every single time.
For project managers, overcoming constraints and limitations is a daily occurrence. Whether they face delays on materials or an unmotivated project team — to successfully complete their projects, these professionals play a balancing act, weighing the provided fixed constraints against unforeseen variables and limitations.
Similar to the theory of constraints which enables project managers to make effective decisions throughout a project, the project management triangle defines the undisputed relationship between the fixed constraints of a project, including cost, time, and scope.
Let’s take a closer look at what a project management triangle is, its basic concepts, and how project managers use it to deliver high quality projects to clients.
What is the Project Management Triangle?
The project management triangle is the heartbeat within project management. Also referred to as the ‘iron triangle’ or the ‘triple constraint,’ the project management triangle considers the three common restrictions that co-exist within a project — cost, time, and scope.
Using a triangle diagram, the triple constraint illustrates just how interconnected these three elements are. Should one or more constraints be adjusted, the remaining components will likewise be affected to varying degrees.
For example, if the scope of the project increases, the project manager will likely require more funding for labor or resources and added time to complete the added tasks.
Basic Concepts of the Project Management Triangle
The project management triangle should be determined by project managers and clients before the project commences. It is essential for all stakeholders involved to understand and agree upon the project’s restraints so the right decisions are made in the best interest of the project’s outcome.
By identifying the three basic concepts of the project management triangle, project managers can work toward delivering the project to the highest quality possible.
3 Primary Elements of the Triangle
1. Cost Constraint
The cost of the project includes the sum of all required materials, labor, and any additional elements required to complete the scope of the project within the required timeframe.
For clients, the project’s price tag is always front of mind. For project managers, providing an accurate estimation on the cost of a project is no easy feat. Should the scope or timelines change, the cost of the project will inevitably change as well.
Common implications to the cost constraint include:
- Unanticipated changes to supplier pricing
- Staffing gaps and recruiting costs
- Added deliverables to the project’s scope
2. Time Constraint
For any assigned project, the time constraint refers to the expected project delivery date by the client. Time constraints within the project management triangle are often some of the most difficult obstacles for project managers to overcome.
Any delay in materials or unanticipated challenges for the team can cause major delays to the project, which makes meeting fixed time constraints a challenge. And since time limitations are directly tied to the cost and scope of the project, any impact to the time constraint can snowball into added costs for more labor or result in significant sacrifices to the project’s overall scope.
Common implications to a project’s time constraint include:
- Unexpected delays on resources from vendors
- Added deliverables to the project scope from the client
- Underestimating the duration of a task within the project
3. Scope Constraint
The scope of a project refers to any of the work required for the project to be successfully completed. This is why identifying and documenting the scope of the project from the onset is an essential practice for project managers and stakeholders.
The scope constraint equips project managers with their goals and guides them in estimating project costs and accurately scheduling all labor. Changing the scope of a project at any stage, as you might expect, can cause a domino effect throughout the whole project. Project managers can be forced to either push back delivery dates, add additional labor costs, or both.
Common Applications and Uses of the Project Management Triangle
Balancing the basic limitations within the project management triangle is one way project managers can effectively plan, schedule, and deliver a successful project.
By identifying stakeholder expectations and constraints, a project manager can improve the overall quality of the project and provide a positive experience for all parties involved. Using the project management triangle as their guide, project managers can best assess all scenarios to make decisions that are in the best interest of the client.
Common applications and uses of the project management triangle include:
Anticipate and Mitigate Risks
Though risks are inevitable, understanding a project’s iron triangle can help drive project managers to be proactive in their decision making and mitigate risks. Knowing which constraints are fixed and where any measure of flexibility lies allows the project manager to navigate obstacles and achieve the desired result.
Improve Communication With Clients
According to one PMI study, poor communication is a contributing factor in 56 percent of all failed projects.
So, how does the project management triangle help? With limited understanding or experience in project management basics, using the iron triangle as a visual tool can assist project managers in explaining project restraints to clients and stakeholders.
Adapt to Project Changes
Unfortunately for project managers, changes in scopes, timelines, and budgets are all too common. A solid awareness of the fixed constraints within the project management triangle allows project managers to adapt or pivot to sudden project changes or new requirements.
Deliver Quality Projects
For a project manager, their goal is to deliver only the highest quality project to the client. Deploying the project management triangle and successfully balancing the project’s fixed constraints can help achieve success throughout all projects.
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