The Power in Constraint: To Move Faster, Create Clear Project Boundaries


One of the many things I enjoy in our “Accidental Project Manager” workshops is the ‘aha’ moments that arise when project fundamentals are explored and explained in practical, accessible ways. While language is important, we believe the proper technical terms are secondary to the core concepts that help teams get good work accomplished.

One of these ideas is the ‘triple constraint’ – the balance of scope, schedule, budget, and quality – often brings with it epiphanies for the uninitiated. (Ok, so there are actually four constraints, but for the longest time quality has been implied. I like to think of quality as the non-negotiable standard inherent in the work, around which we horse-trade time for money and needs versus wants.)

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To address the triple constraint, we draw it up as a simple triangle, with quality in the middle and each dimension of constraint around the outside. If we need more of one element, we pull on the others (e.g. needing more time means using fewer resources along the way or reducing our scope to stay within our boundaries).

Intuitively, most professionals understand that there are limits to what can be accomplished in any given project effort. But for a variety of reasons, they sometimes fail to finalize commitments on these critical project attributes. Having direct conversations to nail down specific constraints can feel fixed, or inflexible. Many teams like the fluid nature of approximate, which simply punts the specifics down the road.

We only have so much time and money to get a body of work done, and if we’re taking the time to do it, let’s get it done well. Many service professionals are familiar with this idea and have boiled it down to quippy signs that often hang on cubicle walls.

Good. Fast. Cheap. Pick two.

It’s an unavoidable trade-off that we all must make, consciously or not. It’s also a common lament of many project professionals.  

  • We can do it well or “good,” but this requires focused effort, and takes patience and thoughtful, dedicated attention.
  • We can go fast, but this is often expensive because speed brings extra resources to accelerate our effort, and we all want to deliver at an acceptable quality. Unfortunately, speed can often mean that we make mistakes, which can be expensive.
  • We can do it inexpensively, but that can mean delays because we use key resources only when they become available, or we painstakingly seek out the lowest cost solution to our problem.

The “Triple Constraint” is a universal rule, and, just like gravity, the progression of time, or the fact that kids must fight on every single road trip lasting longer than five minutes (it’s summer, so this immutable law is top of mind), it’s something that can’t be wished away.

Like many natural laws, project constraints can feel limiting. They can appear to prevent us from realizing our desire for everything – NOW. Defined constraints demand that we agree to accept only that which is agreed upon and defined.


Where is the boundless beauty in all this? How can we be agile with rules and limits and stuff?

Like so many other natural laws, project constraints provide us with powerful boundaries that can help us drive focus back to the middle.

Photo by  rawpixel  on  Unsplash

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

  • Drive commitments to the finite.
  • Define our needs and expectations.
  • Prioritize our desires and wants.
  • Keep us on task.
  • Sharpen our focus.
  • Make and hold to our decisions.
  • Define “success” for the venture.

Because there are limits on time, resources, and the number of requirements we can address with a reasonable level of quality at any one time, we must become more mindful of how we can succeed with what we have.  Mindful of how we prioritize. It means we must make trade-offs, and that we must make decisions.

Smart project managers and business leaders use the power of constraint to create urgency and build alignment. Constraint can be used to force dissenters to commit, to make hard decisions now instead of pushing them forward indefinitely.

  • Nailing down scope – what’s in and what’s out – lets us see how much we can accomplish given our available resources and time.
  • Building a schedule lets us gain agreement around the timeliness of our deliverables and ensure that we’ll have the impact we desire.
  • Building even a simple resource and financial budget lets us communicate what it takes to get the work done successfully.

Constraints let us exit the fuzzy, soft commitment phase of ‘might, maybe, could,’ and moves us to a more concrete, mutually agreeable plan for accomplishing work done well.

Our ability to make changes and evaluate alternatives also increases when we have a clear view of the outcomes and resources at hand. We can make informed decisions about trade-offs and offer reasonable estimates of impacts when confronted with surprises or new information.

Constraints drive clarity. With clear definitions of what is expected, we can all celebrate our shared success when our predetermined outcome is realized.


Wrestling with managing your project or change initiative constraints? We geek out on helping clients formulate projects that can be achieved. If you’re not putting constraints to work for you, we’re happy to talk about wrangling the fuzzy factors slowing your progress.