Agile. Scrum. Waterfall. With so many project management strategies, how can you be sure you’re choosing the right one?
Choosing the right project management approach can make or break your project. While there’s no correct answer, there is one unifying force that every project manager can get behind: triple constraint.
A constraint is a limitation or restriction, so triple constraint can be literally understood as the three limitations of project management.
What are the three components of triple constraint?
The three elements of triple constraint, also known as the Iron Triangle in project management, are scope, budget, and schedule. None can exist without the other and each element is codependent on the other two. Balancing these constraints is integral to a project's success.
Triple constraint is a project management methodology that can be incorporated into any other project management strategy. It’s designed to keep your project delivered on time, on track, and within budget.
Regardless of what your project is about, every project deals with budget, scope, and a timeline. This common thread is what makes triple constraint a universal asset to you and your team. You’re guaranteed to see positive results once you take the time to understand and implement the triple constraint model into your workflows.
Interested in learning about a specific aspect of triple constraint? Use the links below to jump ahead:
What is triple constraint?
Triple constraint, sometimes referred to as the Iron Triangle or the project management triangle, refers to the three elements of any project: scope, budget, and schedule.
Triple constraint is important for managing both client expectations and employee accountability. It provides a framework for your team to work within to ensure you deliver high-quality work within a given timeframe.
Scope, budget, and schedule are interdependent on each other; you cannot adjust one without adjusting the other two. For example, if you wanted a project delivered on a faster timeline than previously quoted, you would need to increase the budget. If you wanted to lower the budget for a project, you would need to narrow the scope.
The 3 elements of triple constraint
In order to truly understand triple constraint, you’ll first need to understand each of its elements. You might already understand what a budget or a schedule is, but understanding them as they relate to project management is key.
1. Project scope
The first step to any new project is defining the scope of work. Your project scope is your roadmap from beginning to end. It tells your team what work needs to be done, what resources you’ll need to accomplish your goal, and more. A project scope is designed to establish project workflows and keep your project on track.
Your project scope answers the question: what is getting done and how is it getting done?
How does project scope relate to triple constraint?
As a project manager, the project scope is your North Star. It establishes what is getting done, the timeline, workflows, and more. If you were to change the scope of your project, everything else would change as well. Keep this in mind when dealing with clients.
It’s not impossible to change the scope of a project after you’ve already begun the project, but don’t forget to adjust your timeline and budget as things shift. Otherwise, you’ll end up doing more work for less money or worse, get rushed into finishing a project with lousy quality.
How to create a project scope
Creating a project scope from scratch can be tricky because no two projects will require identical elements. While your project scope will never look the same twice, there will always be a few things you’ll need before starting any new venture.
What do you need to do for a successful project scope?
Depending on the project, you might need to include other items in your project scope. Tailor each scope to the unique needs of your team and clients. Establishing a project scope management process can help iron out kinks along the way.
Creating a budget for your project is straight forward. Once you’ve decided what you need to do to complete a project, you need to figure out how much it’s going to cost. Building a website or launching an ad campaign for the Super Bowl isn’t free – every new project costs money.
Your project budget answers the question: what is getting done and how are we paying for it?
How does budget relate to triple constraint?
Your project budget is important for making sure you can cover the cost of the project elements and ensure you’re being compensated for your work. Using the example of building a website, it costs money to secure a domain, purchase a website builder, and pay a designer to wireframe everything.
As we’ve mentioned before, your budget depends on the other two factors: scope and schedule. If your client comes to you and tells you they want their website to handle e-commerce purchases, that addition to your project scope will cost more money and take more time. Keeping an eye on your project budget is necessary to ensure you can pay for everything and make a profit.
How to create a project budget
Creating a project budget should be done with the help of your finance team. Whether they help crunch the numbers from the beginning or review everything before the contract is signed, you’ll want sign-off on your budget before moving forward.
What elements should you include in a project budget?
Cost of resources: how much will the elements of this project cost?
Cost of labor: how much will it cost to pay everyone involved?
Vendor bids: how much do other vendors charge for similar work?
Historic data: how much does your business charge for similar work?
Project retainer: do you have a financial buffer in place if needed?
Budget range: how much is the client willing to spend?
Profit margins: can you turn a profit based on the current budget?
Depending on whether you’re doing in–house work or work for a client, you may not use all the elements listed above. Just like creating a project scope, creating a budget will be different every time. Don’t rush this part of the process; take the time to carefully consider every angle before finalizing the numbers.
A project schedule is used to keep everything on track. No matter the size of your project, you will likely work with multiple people with different workflows. Creating a unified project schedule helps keep things moving as you all work toward the same goal.
Your project schedule answers the question: what is getting done and how long will it take?
How does a project schedule relate to triple constraint?
Creating a project schedule sets the expectation for when a project will be completed. It allows you to create milestones and internal deadlines for your project and avoid roadblocks that might occur along the way.
Your project schedule is created based on the budget and project scope. If either of those things change, you’ll likely need more time than originally planned. For example, if your original project scope only included redesigning the images on a website and then your client asks for copywriting as well, that will take additional time to complete.
How to create a project schedule
Creating a project schedule should come after you’ve defined your project scope and set your budget. After you’ve done those two things, you can look at how long it will take to complete everything within the scope and budget.
What to consider when creating a project schedule:
Another thing to consider when determining your schedule is the current workload of your project team. There’s a good chance your team is managing multiple projects at once. Give yourself some buffer time so that your team doesn’t feel overworked. This cushion also allows you recovery time if something holds you up during the process.
Why is triple constraint important for project management?
Triple constraint is important for project management because it helps maintain the quality of your project. At some point in your career, you’re going to run into someone who wants a project delivered good, fast, and cheap. That’s an impossible standard to achieve and is the key reason you should be using triple constraint to manage projects.
Triple constraint helps temper expectations. It allows you a framework to communicate with non-project managers about the work you do. Triple constraint gives you the language to express what you need in order to get your job done, and it protects your work and your time.
How to use triple constraint
Now that you understand triple constraint, you can begin putting it into practice. The key to implementing any new change into your daily workflow is ensuring everyone is on the same page. The following steps will help you implement triple constraint into your project management cycle.
1. Communicate expectations
Triple constraint only works if everyone is on the same page. That means your coworkers, leadership, and clients all need to understand it as well. Take the time to sit with them and explain how it works.
Provide examples of how each part is linked to the others and reinforce that this is the framework you’ll use going forward. Allow them the space to ask questions, and encourage collaboration and discussion about the process. Most importantly, reinforce with everyone that this is how all projects will be handled moving forward.
2. Establish protocols
Once everyone understands triple constraint, you can begin establishing your protocols. It’s unlikely that you’ll ever make it through a project without something changing along the way. Talk with your team about how you plan on handling these situations when the arise.
Some protocols you can discuss and establish could include:
How should changes to a project be submitted to the project manager?
What does the approval process for new workflows look like?
What’s the expectation on the team for last minute requests?
Deciding on your protocols before beginning a project helps keep everyone on pace, and keeps your team accountable of themselves and each other. When everyone understands their role, things get done more efficiently.
3. Monitor everything
Triple constraint relies on established processes, which means automating your project management workflow is key. Doing this manually leaves you open to human error. Most teams choose to invest in a project management software that allows them to streamline much of the process and track it in a single location.
Investing in a project management software can help you:
Track the progress of project deadlines
Communicate with key stakeholders
Allocate assignments to team members
Organize resources and project budget
Project management software also empowers team members to take ownership of their part of the process. They can view the progress of the project through their own profile and work with other stakeholders to keep the project moving forward.
While triple constraint is a popular project management methodology, there are variations that your team can use as well. The most common triple constraint alternatives are the diamond model and the double triangle.
The project management diamond
The diamond model, also known as the project management diamond, is very similar to the triple constraint with one exception: it includes quality as one of the constraints needed for a project to succeed.
While the triple constraint model uses quality as the end metric, the diamond method marks quality as a constraint. Baking quality into the requirements can help raise the standard before the client sees the final product.
Use case: The diamond model works best for smaller teams or any company that has a young, inexperienced team.
The project management double triangle
The project management double triangle method adds another layer to triple constraint. In addition to scope, budget, and schedule, the double triangle calls attention to risk, resources, and quality. The addition of risk management and resource allocation are both given extra attention.
Most of these elements are assumed to be included at some point of the triple constraint process, but for larger teams or project managers that want to be extra careful, this model works best. It can also be beneficial to anyone who handles user data or protected information during their project process.
Use case: The double triangle is good for larger teams or anyone who handles sensitive information or user data within their process.
Good, fast, AND cheap? Not a chance.
It’s impossible to compromise and deliver a high-quality product. But don’t worry, triple constraint exists to explain that for you. Use triple constraint to get everyone on the same page when creating your project plan and save yourself the headache.
Lauren is a Content Marketing Manager at G2. You can find her work featured on CNBC, Yahoo Finance, and on the G2 Learning Hub. In her free time, Lauren enjoys watching true crime shows and spending time in the Chicago karaoke scene. (she/her/hers)