A constraint in project management is any restriction that limits project’s desired outcome. Project constraint is one of the important factors that would influence the way you manage the project and in some cases, it would be a determinant factor to decide whether to continue the project or not. Project limitations can fall under different categories and it is critical to identify and understand each of them that affect your project. This way, you can focus your analysis on those limitations and substantially increase your preparedness to deal with them.
It is a common misconception that the project management constraints are internal i.e. limitations due to internal factors associated to that particular project. Though internal limitations such as project scope or cost play a major role in defining the project constraints, some external factors such as environment, external stakeholders can also impose restrictions or limitations that would result as project constraints.
Triple constraints of Project Management
Anyone with even rudimentary knowledge on project management concepts has probably heard about the well-known ‘Triple Constraint” which is also known as the Project Management Triangle.As shown in the picture, all projects are executed under these constraints – which are Cost, Time and Scope. If you look at each of these constraints in isolation, every project manager’s aim is to deliver the project,
- Within allocated or budgeted cost
- Within stipulated time-frame
- As per the agreed scope
Quality would be the central theme of any project and it should meet the client requirements that are set at the beginning of the project. Cost, time and scope are linked to one another and any change/compromise on one constraint would affect one or all other project constraints.
Every project has a fixed budget that the sponsors are ready to spend in order to get goods or services. If the sponsors cut down the budget, you will have to either extend the timeline for project delivery or reduce the project scope. This is the estimation of amount of money required to produce the final deliverable. Monitory components of various aspects of the project need to be estimated in advance which will be added up to the overall cost of the given project.
Schedule or time-frame of a project is normally fixed based on various factors such as customer requirements, project feasibility, resource availability etc,. Hence, every project has a deadline which is predetermined at the beginning of the project. When a project time gets reduced, either project cost needs to be increased or the scope of the project should be cut down in order to accommodate a shorter deadline. Basically, the amount of the time required to finish the project is directly related to the amount of requirements that need to be part of end product (Scope) and the amount of resources assigned to the project.
It is common across many projects that the scope is fully refined, communicated or understood by the stakeholders at the beginning of the project in order to give the project the best chance of success. However, the scope can potentially be changed by the customer during the project life cycle (known as Scope Creep). Scope is the functional elements of the project that define the end deliverable’s capability. If the scope of the project is increased at the later stage, either cost or time needs to be increased accordingly.
‘Pick two Principle’ – Managing Triple Constraint of Project Management
Project managers seldom find unlimited budget from sponsors and infinite timeline to deliver a top quality product as an outcome of a project. Here are some of the common constraints thrown to project managers during the execution of projects.
Project Constraints Examples
Example 1: In aviation engineering project, top management imposes an unexpected budget cut on your project due to company’s poorer than expected quarterly financial results.
Impact: Due to budget cuts, the scope should be reduced and/or quality of the project to be reduced and the schedule is pushed back in order to obtain cheaper resources. In this case, the most vital constraint is the cost that the company is willing to spend on this project.
Example 2: During a project to create new laptops, your project sponsor asks you to launch the product two months in advance due to a major industry show.
Impact: More people are involved to speed up the delivery time that increases the cost. Some of the features take a cut for the early launch date and the remaining features will be added at the later releases. Time (Schedule) is the most significant constraint here.
Example 3: In a new project management software development, your customer asks you to add more new features in order to take down their competitor product that will be released soon.
Impact: More developers are to be added to this project to accommodate the new features without affecting the project schedule, thereby increasing the overall project budget. Alternatively, the delivery date (schedule) of the project will be pushed back to add the extra features. The most important constraint here is the scope (new product features).
In each of these cases, the project manager needs to re-balance the other factors to deal the new project constraint and make the customer happy. The motto, Fast – Cheap – Good; you can have only any two and it is the bitter truth of the real life. Project manager needs to make a conscious decision while picking the most important two project management constraints based on customer needs. This is commonly known as Pick Two Principle.
Competing Project Constraints
A successful project manager is a person who can balance the competing project constraints and lead the project to success. In an ideal project condition which has no project constraints for a project manager to deal with, he/she can have unlimited options and flexibility to later the project elements such as scope, time or cost. However, this is a pure hypothetical scenario and in practice, project managers and team members have to face the limitations and find the ways to work within the constraints. These competing project constraints include, but not limited to;
Project Constraints List
- Scope – Project outcome as defined in the contract
- Timeline – Important milestones and client imposed completion dates
- Budget – Funding limits imposed by project sponsors
- Quality – Agreed quality metrics with Customer or conformance with internal quality standards
- Resources – Availability of skilled human resources or materials
- Risks – Uncertainties associated with the project
Please note that the above list is not an exhaustive one. In addition to this list, there could be other project constraints such as procurement, organization related and environmental constraints. Triple constraints of project management are normally related to each other. Hence, project manager duty involves balancing these competing project constraints. For an example, a constraint on timeline may force the project to speed-up and skip certain tasks. This may impact the time-frame for quality checking and force the project team to compromise on the quality of the project outcome if they have to stick to the delivery date. It is not necessary that the project constraints should always be imposed by customer/sponsors. Some of the constraints can be attributed to external environment. For example, a few clauses in labour law of a state or a country could be a constraint for your project. As project manager, you should be prepared to modify or tweak your project plan if any new project constraint identified during the project execution.
The Project Management Diamond
More recently, project management diamond model started to claim the project management triangle or triple constraint. In addition to cost, time and scope, quality is also added as one of the vertices with customer expectations as the central theme. The rationale behind adding customer expectations as the central theme is to mainly focus on questions related to customer expectations as no two customer expectations are the same.
Project Constraints and Assumptions
It is not uncommon that the project constraints are often perceived as either project assumptions or dependencies. However, these factors are not necessarily the same and a project manager should apply different approaches for identifying and dealing project constraints, assumptions and dependencies.
As we mentioned earlier, constraints are the factors that limits the project team’s option to achieve the desired project goal with respect to scope, schedule and budget. It would be a dream for a project team that are allowed to do anything they want, take as long as they need, and can have their hands on literally unlimited supply of resources. Unfortunately, the reality is far from this scenario and the project managers need to operate within the real-world limitations and tune themselves with their business/environment limitations to come up with best possible solutions for project success.
On the other hand, project managers rarely have all necessary facts in their hand in advance to make informed critical decisions on a project and they are often forced to make assumptions to support their decision to keep the project moving forward. A project manager cannot wait for all real data to come for making all decisions as it would be too late for any critical decision to be made and it will eventually stall the project as well. Hence, assumptions are the factors that the project manager/management makes to be true but are not proven to be so. It is the project manager’s responsibility to keep a track of all assumptions made as loosing track, can lead to cost or schedule overrun. Any critical decision based on assumptions should be dealt carefully. If the assumption is later proved to be wrong then there is a high chance that the decision may go wrong as it was based on that assumption. In this case, a course correction process needs to be initiated by amending the subsequent tasks.
There are various tasks in a project that cannot be started before we finish some other tasks. No tasks happen in a vacuum and the relationship that defines the order in which the tasks are to be carried out in a project is known as dependencies. A simple illustration for this could be shown as below;
Project Constraints Template Samples
Project constraints need to be identified and well communicated to the relevant teams. Inadequate or improper communication of project constraints may even lead to project failure. In a typical project, all project constraints are included in formal project documents. However, it would be better to capture the constraints separately in a project constraints log.
Project Management Constraint Template
This template would be useful to capture and track all required information related to project constraints. It has got a very few columns related to constraints which make sure to capture only what is required. Project manager must consult with all stakeholders and try to capture as many constraints as possible in advance. Needless to say, the same filled template should be reviewed with the project team periodically and make sure it captures the up to date information.
Project Constraints and Assumptions Template
Sometimes, project managers would like to capture both constraints and assumptions related to a project in a single log. In this case, ‘Constraint and Assumption’ log will be helpful to capture all information in one place. This project constraints and assumptions template has got placeholders to capture project specific information such as project name, ID and customer information. In addition to these, each constraint/assumption can be tracked using a separate ID and the information related project life-cycle stage belongs to each constraint/assumption can be tracked under ‘Category’ column. Each constraint/assumption can be assigned to either individual or group of people and the action plan for validating an assumption or addressing a constraint can be captured under ‘Action’ column. Any comments to clarify the assumption/constraint or status/action should be captured at the last column.
As the project manager, staying on top of all the constraints and balancing them will increase the likelihood of project success. So be mindful about any changes in any of the constraints during the project execution, whether they are unexpected or intended. In addition to understanding how these constraints function, it is also equally important to make the other stakeholders aware of the repercussions of changing one or more constraints during project execution. Sometimes, scope creep, budget cuts or timeline reductions are not avoidable but setting the expectations to the stakeholders in advance on the ramifications (of changing constraints) in advance is the key. Lastly, never assume that other constraints remain unchanged if any other constraints are known to be fluctuating. Let me remind you it is a triangle and one cannot alter one side without changing the other sides.
Recommendations for Insights
Watch this short project management training video to learn the definition of what the triple constraints are all about.
You might be interested in reading these articles related to project constraints
- Besides the triple constraints, there are other project constraints that the project managers usually tend to overlook. This article depicts various project constraints in addition to the triple constraint – http://pmtips.net/blog-new/defining-project-constraints
- Project management assumptions and constraints are well explained in this article through some day to day examples. Also, this article is bucketing the project constraints under two types; Business and Technical –https://pmstudycircle.com/2012/10/assumptions-and-constraints-in-project-management
- This article speaks about the similarities and distinctions between project constraints and assumptions. Also, it goes into greater detail on how to manage constraints step-by-step during the project life-cycle – http://www.luc.edu/media/lucedu/pmo/pdfs/additionalreading/Assumptions_and_Constraints.pdf
- This Pennstate page provide a gist of project constraint and how it fits into Project Management as a decipline. You can go further into details through varoius pages given in their website – https://www.e-education.psu.edu/geog584/l1_p4.html
You might be interested in reading related news stories on project constraints
- The key to successful project management is not just managing the triple constraints but also keen enough to identify other tell-tale signs that could signal an potential project disaster – http://www.cio.com/article/3001214/project-management/6-tips-to-identify-project-management-red-flags.html
- Triple constraints are not just limited to project management but they are ubiquitous. This news column provides insights on why we can not ignore the ‘Iron Triangle’ when it comes to business – https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/jan/11/this-column-change-life-triple-constraints
Recommended books to read on project constraints
In our new era of different problems, we need different solutions. New challenges such as population, energy availability and climate changes throw different threats and opportunities that all project manages should be aware of. Let’s see how these new constraints affect the way we do business in this book.
How long have I got? How much I can spend? Who else would help me? What exactly I have to achieve? There are all the first few questions to anybody who undertake a project. There are all elementary and yet surprisingly ignored. Let’s see how we can deal with them.