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Project Example: The Triple Constraint in Project Management
By Jessica Popp

My goal with the project example is to create a scenario that is similar to those faced in real projects. I find, too often, that textbook examples overly simplify scenarios to the point that the answer is so obvious that when faced with a real world example the less experienced project manager cannot distill the issue.

Mark is a project manager for Custom BoatBuilders, Inc.1 Bill manages the custom building of boats for private consumers. Consumers contract with Custom BoatBuilders (CBB) to build custom watercraft for personal use. Mark reports to Steven who is the Client Relationship Manager. Steven’s responsibility is to work directly with the customer and secure a contract for the building of a custom boat. After a new customer contract is signed, Steven involves Bill to execute on the project.

Steven presents Mark with the parameters of the project. Bill & Matilda Gotrocks want a new power boat delivered by Spring 2009 so they can have their new boat at their country club when the boat slips open for the season. Bill has put down a deposit of $10,000 on his boat and has signed a contract dated July 1, 2008, for a not-to-exceed price of $100,000. Steven explains to Mark that based on current production his project will be allocated the standard 10 resources in varying disciplines from the boat-building department that are generally allocated to projects of this size. Raw materials will be available through the procurement department.

From this Mark knows his constraints for the project:

  • Budget: $100,000
  • Scope: New powerboat
  • Timeline: Spring 2009
  • Project Goal: Deliver scope on-time and within budget (the universal goal of virtually all projects)

The experienced project manager will read this and see that there are many gaps and much more information that is needed to manage this project successfully, but we will get to that later.

For now, let’s focus on the triple constraint and how its components can be used as levers. Rarely in a project will you see a set of triple constraints that can be met as-is. Often one of the constraints is seemingly out of line with delivering a successful project.

For this example, let’s say the powerboat that the Gotrocks’ commissioned has a standard delivery time frame of 12-months. Based on the contract signing date of July 1, 2008, this would imply a standard delivery date of July 1, 2009. But the Gotrocks’ want this in Spring 2009 (”Spring” as a delivery date is another problem that will be covered separately). Clearly we already have a problem. Or do we?

Mark’s responsibility as project manager is to manage the triple constraints to both satisfy the customer of the project (Bill and Matilda Gotrocks) as well as protect the profitability of his company (CBB). At this very preliminary stage Mark should be presenting several options to his boss on how to deliver the the new boat on-time and within budget.

How can Mark deliver the boat on-time within budget?

Problem: Mark needs to shorten the production time line (time constraint) to meet the customer deadline.

To resolve the problem, Mark needs to consider possible adjustments to the other two constraints (Budget and Scope)

Possible Budget adjustments (Sometimes referred to as Levers)

  • hire more resources to work on the project at one time (in excess of the 10 planned for)
  • pay resources to work overtime (keep in mind this may eat into the raw materials budget)

The implication here is that you may spend more to get the desired result (shorter timeline). That is the heart behind the relationship in the triple constraint. To shorten the side of the triangle that represents time you have to increase the side that represents budget.

Possible Scope Adjustments (Levers)

  • Offer to build a less complex boat (building all those fancy options adds more time & budget to the schedule
  • Offer an alternate scope that may still satisfy the customer requirement (in this example, it might be a boat this is stock built and not custom built)

This is a very rudimentary example, but serves to demonstrate that for each of the triple constraints, budget, scope, time, the other two constraints can be modified, adjusted, or changed to accommodate the impact created by the other constraints. It is up to the project manager to see the possibilities in the triple constraint and bring these alternate solutions to the client.

If you are thinking ahead or thinking about your personal experiences and have questions like, “Well aren’t there a maximum number of resources that can work on a boat at one time,” or “that customer is never going to accept the ‘cutting corners’ of a less complex boat” you are exactly correct. This is just the beginning.

We’ve identified the triple constraints and seen how they work as levers that are continually bound to each other. But to truly manage a project is an art as much as it is a science. In this writer’s opinion it is actually more art than science. Mark will have to use his knowledge in his field, his negotiation and communication skills and work through the cascade of new questions that arise with each adjustment of the triple constraint.

1All names, company names and other identifiable entities are fictitious and any similarity to persons or real companies is purely coincidental.

Jessica Popp is a practicing project manager in software engineering. She has more than 13 years experience in software development, project management and people leadership in both Fortune 500 and startup companies. She has a wealth of hands-on project experience from the smallest project to projects whose budgets exceeded $50M per year. Jessica holds a BBS in Information Systems, an MS in Decision Sciences and has a current PMP certification. Jessica runs Project Management 101, a blog dedicated to disccussing various topics about Project Management.

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