As a project manager, you know all about pivoting plans to handle roadblocks — most of which fit into the triple constraints of project management: cost, time, and scope.
When one of these constraints adjusts, so do the others, often shifting the entire project plan or putting a third limitation out of whack. Your best bet is to learn to balance this project management triangle so your team produces high-quality output.
What’s the project management triangle?
The project management triangle — also called the triple constraint model, golden triangle, and iron triangle — is a project management model that visually represents the three competing constraints you must balance to produce a quality end product:
- Time covers the entire project timeline
- Cost covers the entire project budget
- Scope covers every deliverable and necessary resource
If you change the parameters of one of these variables, at least another (usually both) is directly affected. And when effectively balanced, you’ve maintained this triangle of quality.
How does the project management triangle work?
The project management triangle allows you to predict outcomes that can occur if you prioritize one of its variables (time, cost, and scope) over another. Your team might complete a project quicker if time is your primary focus, but you’ll have to condense your scope, which typically reduces deliverables and costs. And the client or your employer might not be pleased about receiving lower output.
If your priority is scope, you might offer high-quality and quantity deliverables while going over your budget and timeline.
Knowing how to strike the optimal balance between the three project constraints starts with understanding the nuances of each one.
You might consider time the focal point of your quality, time, and cost triangle because clients and stakeholders request a set delivery date. While most end-users offer some flexibility, marketing campaigns, order fulfillment, and financial projections all hinge on getting the deliverable into the customer’s hands by the due date.
To make timeline adjustments, you might:
- Add resources
- Increase the team’s size
- Remove unnecessary tasks
- Encourage multitasking
Of course, any changes made often require you to alter your scope and budget parameters. Consider using timesheet reporting tools to manage these constraint changes.
Although cost inevitably circles back to finances, it includes all the tools, equipment, and staff required for your project and is intrinsic to your profit margins and ROI.
What's unusual about this particular triangle corner is that unlike the other two, increasing spending only sometimes improves product quality. For instance, overstaffing can actually hinder efficiency and quality if not carefully monitored and assessed.
Some ways to balance your cost constraints are to:
- Develop only the necessary requirements, leaving out the fancy add-ons
- Negotiate vendor prices
- Research low-cost resources
Any adjustments you make to the cost constraint, such as adding or removing a team member, affect the time and scope restraints.
The project management triangle’s scope component relates to the overall size of the project, including deliverable quality, complexity, and quantity. Of the three constraints, it’s generally the one you’ll have the most control over because, unlike cost and time, this constraint is less susceptible to outside influence (stakeholders, outside vendors, etc.).
To adjust your scope, you might:
- Add or remove resources
- Extend the project’s deadline
- Strip down the deliverable’s features
Do your best to avoid scope creep: where continuously added tasks increase the project’s overall scope, causing the time and cost restraints to bloat.
Why is the project management triangle important?
Project management is a balancing act. You must:
- Manage team bandwidths
- Manage stakeholder expectations
- Mitigate risks and delays
- Clearly communicate with everyone involved
- Offer a high-quality product or service in the end
And the greatest impediments to successfully completing this invaluable work are letting scope, time, and cost constraints get out of hand. Keeping this triangle in mind, always considering how adjustments to one limitation affect others and how balancing all three equals quality, ensures you don’t lose your balance as you juggle important project management work.
Considering this triangle during project planning also helps you clarify priorities. You can work with your team and external stakeholders to discuss which limitations you must meet — like a client’s budget or an employer’s available technical resources — to then create a more realistic and strategic game plan.
The 6 stages of project management
To better understand how you can use the visualization the project management triangle provides, here are the six stages in a project’s life cycle:
- Definition is when a client or employer comes to you with a project idea
- Initiation is when you briefly define the project and conduct a feasibility test to ensure it’s possible
- Planning happens post-approval, and this is when you work with your team to thoroughly plan for meeting scope, cost, and timeline requirements
- Execution covers the time your team takes to achieve every project goal
- Monitoring and control happen throughout as you track, report, and adjust processes and task work
- Closure occurs when you’ve provided deliverables to your employer or a client and includes hosting a retrospective to discuss how project work went
How to manage your project management triangle: 5 tips
Balancing a project’s cost, scope, and timeline is complex work that involves constant monitoring and pivoting. Here are five strategies to help you manage your triangle of constraints.
1. Choose your flexible constraint
Flexibility is always a prerequisite in any project, as unforeseen factors inevitably arise. Gain a thorough understanding of each constraint’s import to determine which is the most pliable. If a deliverable requires more features than initially planned but the deadline needs strict adherence, your flexibility constraint would be budget. And if you must meet a client’s timeline and budget, you might allow project scope changes.
2. Differentiate between essentials and add-ons
Reducing a project’s scope will always help you meet cost and timeline budgets. When project planning, work with your team and external stakeholders to determine unnecessary deliverables. You might complete these nice-to-haves, but it’s nice knowing they’re not necessary.
3. Generate a risk management plan
Everything that forces you to adjust your three constraints is a risk. Cybersecurity threats might mean your team takes longer to complete an app development project, and a missing resource might mean deliverable adjustments.
Try to anticipate risks and their causes, creating contingency plans and clearly communicating them to your team. Address how these issues would affect the schedule, scope, and budget and how you’ll handle adjustments.
4. Create a change management plan
An excellent way to save your team time — and to keep this constraint in check — is with a clear change management plan. This plan outlines reviewal cadences, changes teammates can make on their own (and how to make them), and who to go to when employees don’t have the power to make adjustments. Having this plan in place from the start saves your team time asking questions or waiting around to move a task forward.
5. Choose the right project management method
The right project management approach for you keeps your team productive and communicating effectively. Creating this collaborative and efficient environment ensures teammates complete tasks on time while producing high-quality work.
Here are three common methods that help you address project constraints:
- Agile breaks projects down into sprints where teams frequently deliver features to end-users and communicate often to ensure they remain flexible if they need to adjust any constraints.
- Waterfall is a more linear approach than agile. Here, teams work on tasks sequentially until they complete the entire project. Because there’s less room for correcting previously completed tasks since you’re always moving forward, waterfall-focused project managers create comprehensive project plans at the start, offering valuable visibility into constraint details.
- Lean project management focuses on reducing redundancies and inefficiencies wherever possible, helping managers keep their constraints in check while maintaining high customer satisfaction levels.
Set your project up for success with Roadmunk by Tempo
The project management triangle is an excellent visualization that reminds you to balance three crucial constraints — time, cost, and scope — to produce high-quality deliverables. But you don’t have to take on this balancing work alone. Use Roadmunk by Tempo to define your project scope and timeline and Jira Cost Tracking by Tempo to create a comprehensive and accurate budget your team can stick to.