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The holy trinity of a successful project

Matthew Bruce Team : Web Production Tags : Web Development Clients Common Sense Issues Management Rants Featured

This week I had cause to remind a couple of colleagues of the 'iron triangle' - a representation of the relationship between the forces that combine to constrain any project. Sometimes also referred to as the 'scope triangle' or 'quality triangle', it is also a traditional measure of project success.

An oldie but a goodie, I still remember the moment that I came to realise the significance of the triangle. Having long suffered with a high-touch, unprofitable start-up client, there came a turning point where it was like switching on a light bulb. Under constant pressure to deliver quick, quality work, it was also frustrating that I was constantly questioned on estimations and backed into a position of negotiation on price. For more than a year this went on, straining the relationship with the client and generating stress on both sides of the fence.

Enter the triangle

My problem was that I was letting the client dictate all three sides of the project, and you need to heed the golden rule: the client is allowed to control any two sides of the triangle, but the producer MUST be in control of the third, whichever that is.

The Iron Triangle

If you've ever been a project manager or producer, you will have probably been in a similar situation. It's something that you invariably have to learn and move on from, to be any good at the job. And once you understand the triangle, there's no looking back.

So, how does it work?

There are three sides (duh) but it's what they represent that is key:

  • Scope
  • Schedule
  • Budget

As stated above, the key is that whenever you are dealing with a client - no matter how demanding they may be - you can achieve project success by holding onto at least one side of the triangle. The amount of control you retain ultimately reflects in the quality of the project/outcome. You will always be able to form a logical arguement and stand your ground, on the basis that you need to be in control of one of the three sides, no matter which.

the client is allowed to control any two sides of the triangle, but the producer MUST be in control of the third

Get it? Let's run through the various scenarios we might encounter, and then it becomes clear which direction one should take.

Scenario #1
Client: Scope and Schedule
Producer: Budget

Your demanding client isn't interested in slashing the scale/scope of the project, nor are they interested in cherry picking items for prioritisation, to get to market quickly. Oh, and they want it yesterday. This is the client that needs everything, and there is a hard deadline that just cannot be missed, no matter the cost. This is where the producer must stand firm on budget. If hitting a firm date is mission critical, and nothing can be left out of scope, then the only way this can be achieved is by allowing the producer the budget and resources they need to make this happen. It might mean additional contractors to be hired, putting in overtime, acceleration fees. The client won't be able to fault this logic, and must be open to the idea that things may cost more (variances), or the project might require re-estimation.

Scenario #2
Client: Schedule and Budget
Producer: Scope

Your brief is to deliver on time and on budget. The funds are limited (often the case with a start-up, which we see a lot of at Wiliam) and for whatever reason, it's important to get to market quickly, perhaps for competitive advantage. In any situation where we have limited resources (constrained by a fixed budget) and also are limited in the timeframe that we have to work within, the only possible conclusion is that the producer needs to control the scope. There are only so many hours in a day, and if budget is also fixed, there is no chance of doing any additional overtime or hiring help. You must have an open and frank discussion with the client about what is physically possible to achieve in the timeframe for the available budget. You shouldn't expect to be working for free, or endangering the profitability of the project by relenting and trying to cram more in than is possible. The client may insist that everything has to be done, but if they're not willing to open the purse strings or give you more time, then it's obvious that some requirements are going to have to give. They'll know it in their head, and are just pushing to see if you know it too, and to see how far they can actually push you. Don't break, don't give in or they'll keep being unreasonable. Hold on to your side of the triangle!

Scenario #3
Client: Budget and Scope
Producer: Schedule

The client has a fixed budget, and they know exactly what they want - the requirements are set in stone. They probably also have an idea of when they would like the project to be completed, but unfortunately for them, that call lies with the producer. Of the three possible combinations, this one is the most unlikely. And nobody is saying that the budget doesn't matter - clearly you're never going to build a website for free simply because the client doesn't need it in any hurry. What it does mean is that while the client is set on holding you to your original quotation (no variances, thank you!) and they are not wanting to compromise on functionality or requirements, then they are going to need to work in with the producer and acknowledge that timeframes may need to shift here and there. Potentially another job has come in from sales, and it's super urgent. Think acceleration fees, or penalty clauses in the contract for missing delivery deadlines on milestones, etc. The production manager says the schedule has gotta shift, and your original client is being shunted down the priority queue. That's the nature of the beast, unfortunately. Nobody's saying you won't deliver a quality job, fully functional and to budget... we just need a little more time. It may not be a happy discussion, but at the end of the day, you're retaining at least one side of the triangle and you remain in control. A quality project is still ensured.

Scenario #4
Client: Scope, Schedule and Budget
Producer: You ain't got shit!

If you find yourself in the situation where you are in control of nothing... good luck to you! Ditch the client or get a new job. Don't hold on and fight your way through to the end. You'll end up stressed, sick and the results ain't gonna be pretty.

A word on quality

Where it all falls to shit is when you've let go of the triangle. Nobody is saying that you can't give the client everything they want, you just need to ensure you are still in control. Your best chance of delivering a quality project on time, on budget and in scope, is by ensuring that you get what you need from the triangle.

You are not going to delivery quality work when you are rushed off your feet, with too much to do and no time to do it in. You need to decide - through discussion with the client - which aspect you can claw back. Is the answer that we need more time, more money or do we need to aim a little lower on the requirements?

Seriously, this is gold advice that I think any project manager worth their salt is probably already very familiar with. But it's definitely good to remind ourselves of the triangle, and I also think it's good knowledge for designers and developers to absorb.