Project management – the triple constraint









Project management is about managing a one-off endeavour that delivers specific outcomes to a particular standard or quality over a pre-determined period of time using a limited amount or money or resources.

Project management is a structured way of achieving goals for change and innovation.


The triple constraint

Projects are traditionally described as having three constraints.

  1. Quality: the standard of the outcomes to be achieved
  2. Cost: the amount of money it will take to complete the project
  3. Time: the amount of time available for the project


Quality is expressed in the specifications or outcome standards of the project.

Cost is expressed in the budget or resources.

Time is expressed in the schedule or timeline.


Each of these is a constraint because they place limits on a project. Change one of the constraints and you change the whole project.

Project management is about effective management of the triple constraint.

  • We manage the quality by ensuring specific quality outcomes or specifications are achieved.
  • We manage the cost through a project budget and resourcing plan.
  • We manage the time through scheduling.

We aim to bring a project in on time, on budget and to specification. Often one constraint may dominate a project and therefore constrain the other two factors and influence the way a project is managed.


When time dominates

For some projects, the most important factor is time. The project must be completed by a certain date, no matter what. In this case, because the focus is getting things done quickly you may “cut corners” on quality or you may need to spend more money to employ more people to meet the timelines.


The effect of the dollars or resources

There is a significant difference in projects which have limited resources and those which have generous budgets. In a small budget project, one person may manage and do the work of the project. Given that the project can only afford one person, it may not meet its deadlines.

The one person managing and doing the project tasks may need to work long hours to ensure that quality outcomes are met. In a large budget project, a project manager may have the role of coordinating a team of staff, consultants and sub-contractors who get the work done.

If the project manager is sufficiently skilled at managing the team and the processes, quality outcomes should be more easily achieved on time.


When quality is everything

If quality of outcomes is everything, then there should be sufficient resources and a timeline that is flexible. That is an unusual project, but if you think about projects where the outcomes must be as safe as possible and where the consequence of poor quality may mean injury or death to end users, then you can see how the cost of the project will go up and the timelines may need to be extended.


Project planning for the constraints

It is critical when planning a project that your client and your team are aware of the implications of the constraints placed on the project. Be very careful about accepting a project that has such significant constraints that you will not achieve outcomes or you will go significantly overtime or over budget. Everyone loses in a project like this. And you want to win!

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Creating project team identity using appreciative enquiry

Recently in a post on the Australian Facilitators’ Network discussion forum there was a question about how to create a sense of team identity. I rather liked the response from John Loty who outlined an appreciative enquiry approach. Thanks John!

Although context and focus of varies according to different situations, industries and organisations, there is a standard or generic format as follows:

  1. Best Experience

Tell me about the best times that you have had with your organisation.

Looking at your entire experience, recall a time you felt most alive, most involved most excited about your involvement. And what made it an exciting experience? Who was involved? Describe the event in detail. (Tell the story of that time).

  1. Values

What are the things you value deeply; specifically, things you value of about yourself, your work and your organisation?

a        Yourself — without being humble, what do you value most about yourself?

b       Your work — When you feel best about work at your organisation, what do you value about it?

c        Your organisation — What is it about your organisation that you value?

What is the single most important thing that your organisation has contributed to your life?

  1. Core Values

What do you think is the core value of your organisation? What is it that, if it did not exist, would make your organisation totally different than it currently is?

  1. Three Wishes

If you had three wishes for your organisation, what would they be? (No limit on resources)

People interview each other (preferably persons they don’t know and then the pairs form groups of 6 or 8 — 3 or 4 pairs and relate (share) their discoveries…with each group then sharing the highlights to the larger body.

This process (Discovery) is the first step of the full-blown Appreciative Inquiry process, but it would probably be sufficient to achieve a sense of identity and/or cohesion. And, (my comment) allow for in depth discussion of differences – what they are, how they enhance to the team, whether any need to be resolved in some way.

Fish bone diagrams for problem solving

Remember Fish Bone Diagrams for problem solving? I still think they are useful for framing a problem. Useful for educators and students!

What is a fish bone diagram?

“Ishikawa” or a fish bone diagram can be a useful tool for helping you map a problem and take into account a range of possible causes. Each “bone” represents a possible element of the problem, e.g. people, equipment, materials and methods (or you may add other elements relevant to your own situation such as policy or environment).

The value of using a fish bone diagram is that it encourages us to look at each element in isolation and in combination with other elements. Most often, a problem can have one or more causes. Fish bone diagrams can discourage us from jumping to the apparently “obvious” solution. Potential causes are simply listed on each “bone”. If you wish you can list causes on one side of the bone and solutions on the other.

How to develop the diagram

  • Draw the fish with its bones
  • Name the problem or effect
  • Write this succinctly at the ‘head’ of the fish
  • Decide on what type of cause each bone represents, eg people, machines, materials, methods
  • List possible causes on each of the bones
  • Select which causes you will address
  • Generate solutions for each of the causes


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Fish image made by Freepik from

Work mapping and planning

I used to do this activity with some of my coaching clients from time to time. It is certainly something you can do on your own, but also worthwhile adapting this to team planning.





Allow one hour for this activity, so read through the instructions first and plan ahead, allocating a set time for each activity.

Brainstorm the major activities and tasks that are involved in your work

Write each one down on a post-it. Don’t be limited to what you actually do; include what you “should” do and what you want to do.

Group similar tasks

Cluster those tasks that fall into a particular type of work for example: administration, staff development, budgeting and finance, planning, special projects etc.

  • Play around with these
  • Name each of the groups or clusters with an over-arching title

Sit back and look at the map

  • Is it an accurate reflection of the scope and diversity of your work?
  • Talk about it with someone who knows your work. This could include your manager.
  • Have you included contingency planning or problem solving or dealing with crises? Add these if you want to.
  • Make some alterations to your own map if you want to.

Look at your own map again and think about or journal about the following. If you are working with someone else on this process, do this together.

  • What groups or individual activities are people oriented? Or operational? Or managerial? Or engage you in leadership?
  • Where is the time to relax and reflect?
  • How do you prioritise? What criteria do you use to rank one activity above another?
  • Can you prioritise the groups or the activities within groups? Number these in some way.
  • Are there any activities that you can/should delegate? Mark these in some way.

Organise the work into its component parts

Sections and sub-sections or elements of whatever you want to call them. Sort it all out and group. Identify the priority work.

Play around with the amount of time you would like to allocate to each element of work in a week, a fortnight, or month or quarter. Is there anything that must be part of each and every day? How do you allow for flexible, non-allocated time?

Create a work map using pens and paper or your calendar. See how it works for a month or so. Make adjustments as you go. Try to get someone to support you through this. And enjoy!

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Murphy’s laws of project management


I have no idea where these came from, but I have found them to be “oh so true” especially when I am in the middle of a difficult project and when things seem to be going wrong.

At that stage it is good to have a laugh! 

  • No major project is ever installed on time, within budgets, and with the same staff that started it. Yours will not be the first.
  • Projects progress quickly until they become 90 per cent complete, then they remain at 90 per cent complete forever.
  • One advantage of fuzzy project objectives is they let you avoid the embarrassment of estimating the corresponding costs.
  • When things are going well, something will go wrong. When things just can’t get any worse they will. When things appear to be going better you have overlooked something.
  • If project content is allowed to change freely, the rate of change will exceed the rate of progress.
  • No system is ever completely debugged: attempts to debug a system inevitably introduce new bugs that are even harder to find.
  • Project teams detest progress reporting because it vividly manifests their lack of progress.
  • A carelessly planned project will take three times longer to complete than expected. A carefully planned project will take only twice as long.

Project management checklist


Here is a list of questions that will assist you with project planning.

I always tell clients to allow for a significant amount of time for planning and yet people still rush into doing without mapping out all the actions and times.

I figure 20% of your total project should be taken up with planning. A project plan is not set in concrete and will inevitably shift and move about as circumstances change and unexpected issues arise. This is especially the case in projects that are people focused like the ones in education. You have to be prepared to be flexible. Even so, I still think a plan or road map is essential.

The project management checklist, which can be downloaded in PDF format here.

  • Are the project outcomes clear to everyone involved?
  • Is the project manager’s role clearly defined? Do they have sufficient time to undertake the management process?
  • Who are the project’s stakeholders? How do you communicate with them? What role do they play in the project? What do they need from you? What do you need from them? How will you ensure you/they get what they want?
  • Has a full project plan been developed, including a work task breakdown and a timeline?
  • In terms of scheduling have you taken both duration and elapsed time into account, ie how long each activity will take (duration) and over what period of time (elapsed time)?
  • Have you done a risk assessment and planned how you will manage any high risk areas?
  • Have contingencies been taken into account? Ie what could go wrong with this project and what can you put in place now to prevent this? What steps do you take when/if something goes wrong?
  • How will you monitor the project’s progress? What performance indicators are you looking for?
  • What strategies can be put in place if/when the project falls behind?
  • What reporting needs to be done, progressively and at the end of the project? Has this been taken into account in your schedule?
  • How will you celebrate completion and recognize team achievements?