The 6 project constraints and how to manage them
Because every project and its resources are finite, project managers must work with (and around) their limits. One of the biggest PM responsibilities is managing project constraints, which also happen to overlap with your major knowledge areas, in order to ensure that your project gets completed on time, on budget, and with the appropriate allocated resources.
Some say there are as many as 19 constraints to consider, including resources, methodology, and customer satisfaction. These are worth planning for, depending on your organizational structure and processes, but we’ll cover the six most common project constraints likely to impact nearly every project. We’ll also discuss how these constraints are interrelated, how to manage them separately and together, and how to balance all constraints with your eye on overall project success.
Quality sits slightly apart from the other three, appearing inside the triangle because it is almost always affected by any change to the other three. At the same time, changing quality expectations will most certainly impact the project’s time, scope, and cost.
Most importantly, all constraints within the classic triangle are interrelated, so a strain on one will affect one or more of the others. Here’s an example:
If you are unable to meet a sudden rise in cost, the project scope may shrink and the quality may decline.
If the project scope extends due to scope creep, you may not have the time or resources to deliver the promised quality.
If delivery time is cut or rushed, project costs may rise and quality will very likely decline.
One of the most important stakeholder considerations, project time (how long it will take to deliver), is a vital measure of project success. Your task is to estimate project time as accurately as possible, which requires a blend of research and experience.
If you’re a newer PM, you’ll rely more heavily on past projects for precedent, and use their data to give you a sense of appropriate scheduling for your project. Look over completed projects’ closing documents and schedules to gain a sense of how long certain work packages typically take. And be sure to study how change orders affected delivery schedule.
If you’re a more experienced PM, rely on both research and your past performance and wisdom when estimating time ranges—including potential delays, change requests, risks, and uncertainties. Overall, your job is to provide stakeholders with the most accurate range possible in order to avoid surprises or making unrealistic promises.
Equally important to stakeholders is how much a project will cost. As with time constraints, your budget estimates need to be presented in a range. Some key research will lead you to accurate numbers:
Estimate costs with thoroughly researched market rates for goods and services you need
Estimate costs with vendor bids and ranges
If providing hourly cost estimates, be sure to estimate your time accurately in the first place
Estimate your budget by considering all costs: labor, material, factory, equipment, administrative, software, contractors, etc.
Look at costs and budgets for similar past projects inside and outside your organization
Look carefully at change orders that affected past project budgets
Controlling your costs will be an ongoing project management task. You’ll want to stick very closely to your proposed budget, while keeping an open mind about changes that may affect costs.
Since a project scope is not an estimate but a guaranteed set of deliverables, it’s difficult to imagine creating a range for this constraint. However, you can consider that stakeholders may be invested in scope risk and scope tolerance ranges.
For example, you may list a set of deliverables that could be created if budget and schedule allow, a wish list that your stakeholders can choose from if there’s money and time left over after mandatory deliverables are completed.
Likewise, you may indicate which deliverables on the scope can be omitted or cancelled, if time or cost grow too constrained. If, for example, a few must-have deliverables end up consuming too much of your budget, your stakeholders can tell you which of the remaining deliverables they will allow to be dropped so that time and budget constraints can still be met.
The projected benefits of any project should be clearly spelled out in a business case during the very early stages of project planning. To put it simply, a project’s value must be determined early and fully agreed upon before launch. Therefore, your business case should articulate the project’s justification and what set of measures will be used to assess its benefits to the organization.
Actually determining a project’s benefits will most likely have to take place a set period after completion, since impact will need to be measured over time. However, if those benefits disappear or fall below a certain threshold during the project, work should be suspended until further evaluation.
Any number of changes in conditions may also suddenly alter a project’s foreseen benefits. For example, if the cost of construction materials suddenly skyrockets, the benefits of completing a small structure may be completely obliterated. Or, the anticipated rise in sales due to a new marketing campaign may be wiped out if a major supplier goes out of stock.
A project’s benefits are never completely isolated from other factors. The constraints you must continually consider are how a single project’s benefits measure against losses, changes, damages, or rising costs. You should determine at the start of a project what the benefits threshold will be, and what conditions will warrant project cancellation, scaling down, delay, or partial completion.
We usually think of threats—what might go wrong when we plan for risks. A PM must be able to reasonably foresee failures at every step of a project, and prepare for them accordingly. This can involve playing out what-if scenarios and formulating contingency plans:
What if a supplier fails to deliver?
What if we lose any number of resources due to illness or transfer?
What if the market takes a huge swing?
What if our competitor launches a similar product at the same time?
When managing risks as a constraint, you must find the zone of risk tolerance in your organization and stakeholders, which means determining a tolerable range of responses within appropriate limits. For example, if a supplier fails, you will seek out another within X price, Y delivery time, and Z quality. By establishing a zone of tolerance, your stakeholders will be able to determine how much risk they are willing to take on in order to reap the proposed benefits of the project.
Another way to look at risk is through the unexpected opportunities that may arise. Seizing a new opportunity will naturally involve risk, so it’s helpful to show your stakeholders scenarios and determine their window of tolerance on this end of the spectrum as well. If, say, an opportunity arises to capture a larger market share, will stakeholders be willing to raise their investment amount? What would be the limits of their increase?
Proceeding with caution and courage.
We know that no project can be planned or managed down to every single possibility. But you can, within reason, work well within your given limitations to bring about as much predictability as possible. The key is remembering what your project constraints are, how they impact each other, and when they indicate a change in course is necessary.
Projects constantly change and evolve, requiring a balance of preparation and responsiveness.