When your client wants more scope or better quality done within less time and this without paying more, then you should come up with some magic: The project management triangle, also called “iron triangle” or “triple constraint“. Unfortunately for our Projectix, he has totally overslept this.
We all know these situations well. Who of you did not have a client asking for “more” yet? This is human. We all want the best deal for us. Who does not take the bigger piece of the cake if given the free choice? Be honest! Well, I always would if it is chocolate cake 😉
So, the most important in such kind of discussions for you is not to be offended or angry. Take it sportingly. Your client just tries to get a bigger piece of cake. This is comprehensible.
Now, how about you? Did you hear about that Magic Triangle?
So, what do you think, is it really the universal remedy to excessive customer requirements? Or shall we better take it with a pinch of salt?
The Triple Constraint of Quality, Time and Costs
The magic project management triangle is a model that allows you to show in a very simple way that the 3 dimensions quality, time and costs are interdependent. Changes in one constraint necessitate changes in the others to compensate. In the triangle, changes are represented by arrows. The effort needed for each constraint changes parallel to the axis.
! Caution, risk !
You will see in the examples that the magic triangle is not suited for any calculations. The problem is that the magic triangle tries to illustrate a three-dimensional problem in a two-dimensional diagram. Mission impossible. You should only depict it in an rough schematic manner and only when it really demonstrates what you want to explain.
So, when a customer once again requests to increase the scope at the same cost, then you can use the project management triangle to demonstrate the interdependencies between the three constraints. With a bit of luck he will understand. Which does not mean that he will be eager to pay more, but he might accept that it will take more time. 😉
To help you with this, we have created this Magic Project Management Triangle diagram you can download for free and use for your next discussion with your client.
The 3 Sides of the Triangle in Detail
Before I come to concrete examples, let me explain the 3 sides of the triangle:
The term “quality” is used here in a different way than we might know it from everyday use. For example, when we talk about the quality of a car we mean it will last long and hopefully not rattle along so soon. When used in business, we are not only talking about the rattling but about all characteristics that account for an item or a service. No matter if positive or negative. So is the size of the piece of cake also a quality as is the number of meetings you and your team are asked to attend with the customer during the project life time.
That’s why in our triangle we have put “Quality / Scope”. Scope means all the aimed outputs to be delivered by the project, during the project’s life time as well as the end result.
The term “time” is clear. Time means the project schedule. But be careful, you will see in the examples, to have more time does not necessarily mean lower costs.
Costs are all resources devouring funds. For example manpower, but also rental fees or a supplementary digger in a construction project.
When you estimate your costs, don’t forget to consider the costs for people and resources that are already part of the company and are not billed externally. Resources you tie additionally to your project cannot be used for other projects or tasks for the time you need them and could wear down.
For example, when you need a second printer which you can dispose of in-house because it stands uselessly in a corner, then you need to put the same costs in your budget as if you would lease it externally for money. Why? That it stands uselessly in a corner does not exclude that somebody else would like to use it tomorrow. Then you either defend your right of “first come first served” or you will now need to find another printer, to be leased from an external provider. And suddenly the former free of charge printer becomes a costly part in your budget.
Examples for the Project Management Triangle
Let me demonstrate with the help of two examples how the magic triangle works, what it is good for and what not and where the risks are:
1.) More scope
Your client wants more (better quality, more items, wider service, whatever). He doesn’t accept to pay more for it. But he can accept to extend the project duration, which means no additional resources are needed (note, the existing resources will be tied to the project for a longer period of time).
The magic triangle seams to demonstrate that time and scope are changing, but the constraint of costs seams to remain unchanged on its axis. This naturally is bullshit and does not work in the real life.
! Caution, risk !
In a project, time always costs money. As I said above, if the project duration is extended the existing resources will be tied to your project for a longer period of time. Which costs!
Imagine you hire 10 construction workers for 10 days to built a house. If you use the same 10 workers for 20 days to build 2 houses, well you still need the same workers. Now you could say you don’t need more resources (workers), but this is – as said before – nonsense, because you will have to pay them twice as long. Double scope most of the time means double cost, except for productivity effects.
What are productivity effects? These effects are based on the assumption that the 10 workers did some time costing errors when building the first house which they would not repeat for the second house and so need a bit less time, let’s say 8 days, to build it. This would be a better productivity by 2 days. Such an effect can be observed only in the beginning, let’s say for the first 10 houses. Once the same workers will have built 1000 houses, they will probably not learn so much new things with the 1001rst house and there will be no more productivity effects.
! Caution, risk !
Don’t forget, there is always a spark of truth in your client’s reasoning. Don’t be too categorical in refusing his requests. Besides the higher productivity when delivering the same output twice, there are some other possibilities to save costs when the client accepts a longer project duration. For example, your team won’t have to work on weekends and you don’t have to pay them premiums for it. But this is only one side of the coin. Other costs might be time and productivity independent and still others increase even more the longer you make use of something no matter how much output is generated. That’s why it is so important that you prepare your argumentation well and that you examine your topic from all perspectives before you start the discussion with your customer.
2.) Things need to go faster
As always, there were delays in your project. No project runs exactly as planned. This time, you’re lucky because it is the customer’s fault. But now he asks you to regain lost time. To demonstrate that this implies costs you’ll present the following diagram to him:
In contrast to example 1 here the magic triangle diagram is correct. The time gets shorter, the scope remains constant and the costs increase. Why is it for in the first example the costs went up when the time was extended?
Less time in a project always means more costs. Our little construction worker story seams not to work here because when building a house in half the time we will need twice as many workers but only for half the time, so the costs should remain constant.
That is true, but I can’t hire as many workers as I want, or release them when I need to compensate changes in the project. So, to shorten the time without hiring new workers, the existing workers will need to work longer or I will need additional machines to back them up.
All this generates costs. Such as weekend premiums. Plus additional fees for urgent orders, express deliveries etc. To transport an engine part from Germany to Mexico for example, this can be done by ship within 4 weeks or by plane within 4 days. The plane would safe you about 3 weeks but the costs would be 5 times higher.
I hope I could show you what the magic project management triangle is and how it works.
The magic project management triangle, also called “iron triangle” or “triple constraint” is a model that helps you demonstrate the interdependencies of the 3 constraints quality (we added scope here), time and costs. Changes in one constraint necessarily imply changes in the others to compensate.
Unfortunately, the use of the magic triangle is not a piece of cake (to stick with my term from the beginning) and you won’t convince a client by just drawing some arrows in a triangle. I’ve explained some of the pitfalls.
Especially when a client is to open his wallet you won’t get far acting like a sulky child à la “But I want more money!”. Better be prepared with a sound argumentation. You’ve seen that the magic triangle is good for supporting your reasoning and perhaps convincing your client in the end.
But there also is a risk. As shown in example 1, one can easily misunderstand the diagram, intentionally or not. You need to be prepared for those cases so that you don’t get caught with your pants down.
Now it’s your turn!
Remember the last time one of your customers asked you to speed up or to do more/better at the same price? What was your answer to this? Would you have answered differently knowing the magic triangle?
We have created this Magic Triangle diagram which demonstrates what happens when you need to increase scope, increase speed or reduce costs. You can download it for free. And next time your client asks you to do more or to do it faster at the same price, you can come up with some magic.
Now, ask a friend or a colleague to do a little training with you. Ask her or him to slip into that nasty client’s role and try to reason with the help of the magic triangle.
How was it? I’d love to hear your feedback!
And how about a third example… What if you were asked to reduce the costs in your project? I know, that never happens. 😉 How does the arrow in the triangle would need to be then? You’ll find the answer in the download!
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