PM Tools: Managing the Golden Triangle

If you’re involved in managing projects or even just working on project team, you will almost certainly come across the statement (or overhear mention of) “the triangle.” I think every profession has fundamental or foundational elements which both the understanding and usage of define your ability to be successful at it.

The triangle, or as I like to think of it as, the Golden Triangle is one of those fundamental things about project management. And what is the Golden Triangle (capitals are necessary)? Time. Cost. Scope. 

Is it an equilateral triangle?
In a perfect world, yes! The amount of time to complete the project is fully aligned with how much it costs to complete the project and the end-deliverable/solution will fully solve the question or problem that it is been spun up to do.

Yes, in a perfect world, the Golden Triangle has all of those elements in balance. You have the right mix of resources (skills + cost) doing the work (available to do it at the right time and right sequence) which will one-and-done solve your problem statement (the goals).

However, we don’t live in a perfect world. We generally like to start projects, or at least we believe we do, with all of those things in synch – you would assume this is what drives all of the plan and scope and charter definition, analysis, review, and finally approval cycles – but those things can quickly fall out of sync with things that are endemic to the nature of companies and people:

  • A key resource leaves the company (certain estimates to critical activities were hinged on this resource)
  • An earthquake happens, which impacts your company’s business environment (literally!) and funding for this project now dries up
  • The problem which was set to be solved – like a regulation – has now changed, potentially morphed into a larger problem or a different one; a significant part of your planning and approach now needs to be redone
  • Risk is inherent to planning: you’re making a guess at the future, and well, the future hits and what you guessed was wrong

And so on and so forth. The equilateral triangle never survives: so what else is there?

Isoscelic problems
More often than things perfectly being aligned, you have cases where two elements are aligned, i.e.

  1. Your costs and scope are in control, but the timing is out of whack,
  2. The timing makes sense and the costs does, but doesn’t meet your scope needs
  3. Scope is perfect, timing is perfect, but it will cost you an arm and a leg and your firstborn child to get it done

And this is when we get to decision points like:

  1. Are we willing to pay that arm, leg, and firstborn child if we meet our objectives? Or, do we want to descope items (what’s high priority versus what isn’t)? Or, are we willing to phase in deliveries so it takes longer but we still get it all done? (Note: Rarely does making things longer significantly reduce costs; it may simply reduce when you spend, keep that in mind)
  2. Can it even be phased? It is worthwhile to phase this delivery?
  3. Do we really need all of this or how much of this is slush? So not high or low priority, just nice to haves?
  4. Will it really cost that much? Do we need to reexamine our resource mix?

In other words, the moment you get to a case of an isosceles triangle, start trying to figure out where your lever points are in effort to create the equilateral triangle again. Or at least some form of it where all of your stakeholders are in agreement with the new baseline.

Still, it’s ever rarely as simply as that and that’s because projects mostly look like—

Scalene triangles – and yes, they are always acute
Projects don’t exist on paper. They don’t exist in project plans, they don’t exist on issues lisk and action items, and they most certainly do not exists on PowerPoint slides. No, projects exist in the real world: people with varying personalities, changing business and market environments, corporate politics, lost shipments, bad coding practices, outrageous egos, organizational inertia, etc., etc., etc.,

And no matter how much you plan or prepare yourself, you will have daily, weekly, and monthly fires. Some will be the size of a matchstick; some will burn a whole house project down. Problems tend to be acute: sharp, severe, intense, and always present-tense.

And those problems (issues, challenges, roadblocks, mines, whatever you choose to call them) can always be mapped back to the triangle. And that’s why projects tend to be scalene in nature: in reality, they almost never are equilateral, they are isoscelic occasionally, but the daily way you experience your project – in fact, the daily way you must manage your project – is by managing all of the pieces.

Why you should manage the triangle
Because managing the triangle is managing your project: those two statements are equivalents. That sounds like a cold, over-logical statement, doesn’t it? Here’s what managing the triangle means in real, on the ground, day-to-day details:

  1. Your development manager is upset – go talk to him or her and find out what’s really buzzing them and figure out what you can do to help [aka people management]
  2. The resource you were relying on just quit! And isn’t taking the counteroffer – go talk to her, wish her well, and find out why she’s leaving and if she has any colleagues she trust and would recommend [aka talent acquisition]
  3. In a financial audit, you’re bleeding cash during bug fixes from an outsourced development team – after talking to your outsourcer, you find out that the requirements that are coming in aren’t clear or are constantly changing – you follow up with your BA to review the requirement plan and help solve the review and approval touch points to stop the bleeding [aka requirements management]

You see, managing the triangle means understanding and managing the underlying drivers.

  • Projects just don’t suddenly overrun on costs: something is causing it.
  • Projects just don’t magically deliver late: something is causing it.
  • Projects don’t just fail to solve the original problem statemeent: a number of factors lead to that and there are activities and controls and things you can do to prevent it.

Therefore, if you manage the triangle, you, as a project manager, are doing your job.

And that’s why for me it’s the Golden Triangle – better than a speed square when trying to nail together two pieces of wood at a 90 degree angle; it’s the fundamental tool in my tool belt.

What’s yours?


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