Wrestling with the Project Management Triple Constraint

13 June, 2013

In this era of cost cutting and tight regulation, many a Project Management Professional (PMP)® must yearn for the good old days, when flagship projects were commissioned by absolute monarchs, who had unlimited resources to throw at their ventures. If you are preparing for your PMP® exam, you too might fancy an environment where budgeting or human resource management are not concerns.

For instance, when the Pharaoh Khufu commissioned the Great Pyramid in Giza, he had only two concerns: (1) that it would be magnificent and (2) that it would be ready for his departure from this life. Despite the fact that Pharaohs at this stage had declared themselves gods and had the entire resources of Upper and Lower Egypt at their disposal, you can already see the constraints coming in. We have a deadline – Khufu only reigned for twenty years – and we have an ambitious scope statement. However, Khufu’s project manager just had to trump Khufu’s father, Sneferu, who built the first pyramid in Giza. So this was just a bigger and better version.

Khufu’s project manager did not have to worry about motivating his project team either. The labourers were slaves and the project engineers (and indeed the project manager) were assured of savage retribution if they failed to accomplish the goal. We can be sure that they didn’t receive any project management training courses! Today’s PMPs®, at least, only have to worry about being fired.

The Roman Emperor Hadrian solved his problems with the Caledonians by building his eponymous wall. While history has not recorded it, his project manager probably did not worry about the effect the wall would have on the migratory habits of badgers. If there was an environmental lobby in Briton in those times, Hadrian would have been able to crucify them, no questions asked.

Hadrian also had highly disciplined legions at his command to build the wall. The materials were essentially stolen from local quarries. But even then, a project manager was needed to plan in what order the work was to be carried out. Despite not worrying about the environment, costs, labour, compulsory purchases or building regulations, Hadrian’s PM still had to organize the construction in a hostile environment where Caledonians tribes regularly raided the building sites. The project also faced schedule issues – the wall had to be built reasonably quickly so that all the Caledonians were on its north side when it finished.

When Qin Shi Huang unified various states to form China in 221 BC, walls were the standard method of fortification. Qin ordered that all internal walls, dividing the states from one another, be demolished and he commenced building an external wall to protect the new empire from intrusions from the north. Wall building was ongoing through the subsequent dynasties until 1,644 AD, when Manchu forces crossed the wall and stormed Beijing. So the Great Wall of China eventually proved ineffective, but only after more than eighteen centuries of service.

While Chinese wall building spanned the centuries, each development was motivated by immediate concerns – fears of invasion and the more prosaic needs of immigration control. The Chinese emperors, like the Pharaohs, were able to provide labour and materials in ample measure, but the Wall’s project managers were faced with severe project time constraints as each new section of the Wall was commissioned to solve today’s problem and, while the projects may have taken years to complete, the Emperors undoubtedly wanted them yesterday.

So the Project Management triple constraint that is the bugbear of today’s project managers may not be such a bad thing. Having to do as much as possible within a given budget and time frame, to an acceptable quality standard, has given rise to professional project management standards. This means that a project manager can present project plans that are based on fact, or intelligent estimates. Today’s project manager can push back against unreasonable demands from project sponsors and project stakeholders by using tools like Work Breakdown Structures and Precedence Diagrams to show project sponsors the amount of work needed to complete the task. Risk analysis allows the Project Manager to indicate the level of confidence there is in finishing the project within the Project Management constraints.

While it might be nice not to have resource concerns on your project, remember that having access to too many resources can also be problematic. Tom DeMarco has observed that throwing resources at a project – crashing the project schedule as it were – can be counter-productive if done at the wrong stage in the project. For instance, a cohesive project plan can be created by a small group; however, if too many planners are involved, a condition known as analysis paralysis can arise.

Thanks to the certification in project management, we can present plans to management showing well grounded estimates for our projects. Thanks to the lack of absolute power, we can present our project estimates without fear of summary execution. We also can push back against impossible requests. Because of the Project Management triple constraint, we have to analyse our requirements, our work load and our resource requirements to come up with realistic estimates. Without such project constraints, we can end up with very expensive failures. Remember that Sneferu’s pyramid in Giza is not his first attempt. The “Bent Pyramid” in Dahshur shows how implementing unreasonable requests leads to disaster. Two thirds of the way up, the pyramid suddenly takes on a steeper slope. Apparently, the structure just could not take the weight of the original design. If Sneferu had been worried about cost, he would have requested that more thought go into the design before charging off on the project.

Constraints, surprisingly enough, are good things. Being able to juggle them has created the project management profession. Consider that as you study for your PMP® exam and gain your PMP® certification!

By Velopi Seamus Collins

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