In this post I want to discuss why we should all worry a bit less about time and money on projects. Usually, there is a more important thing to worry about.
Projects have various dimensions. Time is one dimension. Cost is another. Yet another is quality. These dimensions are not independent variables, but dependent ones that have an influence on each other. This was most famously described in the Iron Triangle. Devised in 1969 by Dr Martin Barnes, the Iron Triangle basically states you can’t alter one of these dimensions without effecting the others. For instance, change the quality you want from a project and you will end up modifying the time or the cost, or both.
The Iron Triangle is a useful rule of thumb, although as many commentators have correctly pointed out there is not really anything iron about it, and most projects have more dimensions than three. For example, risk is another dimension. There are more or less risky ways of doing most projects. The degree of risk you take is inter-related to the time, cost and quality of the project.
Nevertheless, the Iron Triangle remains a useful way of exploring projects and one that shows up a general blind spot in the way many projects are run. Even though we all know there are multiple dimensions to projects, in most cases the focus is very much on two: time and cost. Going back to the Iron Triangle, we know that one of the dimensions is quality, but focus on it is often limited.
Whilst all the attention is on time and cost, no one is worrying about quality.
Paying Lip Service
Few people are going to admit that they are not worrying about quality. But the truth is that many really are paying lip service to the concept of quality.
The signs that quality is not important on a project does not come from open admissions that no one is worrying about it. The way you find out that quality is not important on a project comes from observing behaviour. What sort of behaviour do I mean? Examples include:
- A sponsor who keeps saying things like “we cannot be late”, “unmoveable deadline”, “if we miss this we all lose our jobs” – yet these statements are never matched with similar statements about the quality of the project outputs.
- A project manager or a PMO who is constantly reviewing the schedule and budget, but who does not put any emphasis on the quality control of deliverables.
- A project team who keeps pointing at the tasks to do today and never discusses outcomes.
- A project team that consists entirely of people with development experience, and has no one with operational knowledge.
- Quality control activities, like testing, being treated as contingency time that can be squeezed out when the schedule is not met.
- Success being rewarded for delivery to time and budget, and not for sustained change or achievement of business benefits.
- A recruiter who is only interested in a project managers’ track record in delivering to time and budget, but not the business outcomes achieved from those projects.
These behaviours continuously imply that time and cost are more important than quality. All the focus is on finishing projects, rather than living with the outcomes. Worse, these behaviours reinforce the culture that focuses on them to the detriment of the quality of deliverable and outcomes. Quality is squeezed out.
The wrong priorities
The title of this post was deliberately contentious. Of course time and budget matter. Some things really do have hard deadlines, although fewer than is often claimed. Usually there really is a maximum budget, although often it is a bit more than is admitted. If you continually fail to meet time and budget constraints your projects won’t be seen as successes, and a long career in project management is probably not be in the offing.
Yet it is worth being clear that time and budget are constraints, not real business goals in their own right. We can''t ignore constraints, but goals matter more than the constraints.
Today, on your project, everyone may be running around screaming about deadlines and budgets. In a year or two, this will all be forgotten. Few will remember how long the project actually took or how much it spent. But if your organization or customer is living with a set of poor or compromised deliverables it won’t be forgotten. It will be the painful daily reality for everyone using those deliverables.
Don’t let the focus on time and cost mean that quality becomes a forgotten priority. Don’t let the short term panic spoil the long term outcome.
Richard Newton is a consultant, author and program director. He has published 15 books. He is the author of the best-selling The Project Manager, Mastering the Art of Delivery, the award winning The Management Book, as well as a series of eBooks on change management. He is currently working on a second edition of Project Management Step-by-Step and the development of a project management simulation for educational purposes. Richard is always happy to discuss any aspects of his writing.