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Enriching the Iron Triangle

Ever thought to yourself, "wow - we haven't even started this thing yet, and we're already behind."  I heard someone say recently that they were having that feeling yet again, and that they sensed it was happening frequently. Everyone in the conversation agreed - both that the case at hand was behind before even starting, and that it seems to happen more often than any of us care to admit. So why does it keep happening? And what can we do about it?

Why Does it Keep Happening? 

I think it happens because we as professionals continue to make statements about possible dates, deliverables, and budgets before we have all the information we need to ensure that the project is ready to start. In project management, we sometimes talk about the "Iron Triangle" or the "triple constraint" of scope (what are we doing), time (how long do we have to get it done), and cost (how much money will it cost us to complete). A well-planned project is one in which these three things are known and balanced. We have a clear understanding of what we're accomplishing, how much time we have to get it done, and the associated costs. We have a better chance of succeeding if those three ideas (scope, time, cost) are in reasonable balance - we can actually get the desired work done in the allotted time for the agreed-to cost. But if we don't even know them, how can they be in balance?

It doesn't seem to matter if we're in a sponsorship, leadership, or team member role. At the very beginning of our projects, (the technical project term here is in "initiation") we talk loosely about finishing things this week, this month, this quarter...we offer sweeping statements about getting things done with a thousand dollars, a million dollars, ten rightly we should! In order to get us moving together in a direction, we have to have at least an idea what we want, by when, and for how much. And if our "why" has united us and inspired us, then we've got a group of people, now moving forward in a common direction, ready to gather more information as we put together a more detailed plan at the right moment. 

The issue, the problem, where our pain hits us, isn't in the idea generation. You see, once we've done that detailed planning, once we get to the nitty gritty details, we realize that when we got us all excited about this idea to begin with, we only knew a fraction of what what was going to happen. And as we learn more, often things get bigger, more complex, more expensive, and they're going to take longer than we originally thought.

Let me offer this thought - I don't think that right there is the problem either. 

You see, now, as we get to a point where we're figuring out the details of the thing we're working on, we know more than we knew before. That's a good thing! As we get more information, we're smarter than we were before! 

The pain, though, of feeling like we're already behind, feeling like we have to play catch-up, or that we're already letting people down, and we haven't even started working yet...that's what I want to solve for.

But how do we avoid that pain?   

What Do We Do About It? 

First and foremost, I think we can all set expectations more effectively.

Every time we hear a date being tossed around in a pre-planning conversation, we need to call it out as an assumption - one that is yet to be proven. If, right in the conversation when we're talking about our idea before we get to the plan, we say something like, "I think we can have it done by June, but that's a guess," or if we talk about delivery dates in quarters, months, or date ranges instead of "done dates" in our earliest conversations, people won't get a chance to fall in love with a date that wasn't possible in the first place.

Every time we hear a cost or total of hours suggested before planning is well underway, we can stop the conversation, call attention to the fact that it's an assumption, and set the expectation then and there that the future is fuzzy, and all the answers we are coming up with are subject to change. "I think it's 1000 hours, but I don't know because I'm not the one who is going to do the work, and the one who is hasn't looked at this yet," or  "I think the work involves these three steps, but I really haven't looked closely yet," then we're setting the expectation right then and there that the future is fuzzy. Instead of letting others get attached to this vague picture of the future that's helping us move forward with our plan, we're treating that idea as a direction, not a destination.

The point is this: The "Iron Triangle" of scope, time, and cost cannot be firmed up until planning is complete! Before that, it's more like Jell-o than iron, and definitely not something you would hang your hat on.

And there's more...we also need to plan accordingly, and have tools, tricks, and techniques at our fingertips to lighten the load of planning so that the move from idea to concrete plan doesn't take so much work.  Here are a few tips that may be useful: 

  • Keep action item lists or work breakdown structures (WBS's) from one project to the next, so we can re-use one that we have used before! Save time by not reinventing the wheel!
  • Keep a running list of common areas of risk, so we can head off the "usual suspects" before they find us. 
  • Keep a checklist handy for communication planning, so we can start with what we already know (where to store shared files, how often to meet, status reporting, etc.)! 
  • Keep a guide or cheat sheet for human resources planning (like a roles and responsibility document or a set of team-building activities, for example), so that everyone can get to know each other better. A team on the same page will work on the same problems, after all! 
  • Think about the work we will be doing - even if we don't have all the details up front, there's likely some stuff we DO know now. Start a template, a document, a spreadsheet - whatever works best for the team! 
  • If we know we will need to convey a common message to multiple audiences, create a cheat sheet so we don't have to reinvent the wheel each time. 
  • If we know we will be coordinating a wide variety of details, create a job aid to capture the details so we have a single place to find them. 
  • If we know someone has been through something like this before, reach out to them, pick their brain, and update the plan, risk log, communications, etc. accordingly! 
  • Planning together gets us to the best end result, but working together can create churn if we're not intentional about how we build relationships and connect as humans, so making time to do that saves time in the long run!


The theme of this solution set is two-fold. First, let's stop letting the assumptions (made before we know the actual plan) be the things that others hold on to in order to measure our success. And second, let's find ways to move through planning activities faster so we can get moving on our work!  Next time you find yourself in this position, give this a try, and let us know if it helps!

If you ever need more advice or resources, please reach out! We’re happy to help make your day even better! 



Topics: Business Skills & Business Acumen, Project Management & Business Analysis

Sinikka Waugh

About the Author

Sinikka Waugh

Sinikka Waugh is a recognized leader in understanding people and in adapting tools, techniques, and processes to meet the demands of the situation at hand. Since 2006, Sinikka has provided compassionate leadership in transformation initiatives. When she isn’t in front of a class, she enjoys putting her background in English and French Literature to work, by writing blogs about the subjects she teaches every day. Are you ready? If you are, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us!

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