Pick a Variable, Any Variable

Signpost of Choices

Time, quality, price — pick any two.

When it comes to project management, truer words were never spoken. I know it sounds like a tired old cliché that people trot out at the first sign of project difficulty. And, sure, it sounds trite and even seems to violate my rant from last week about silly lists.

But the hard truth is that this is the essential choice to be made when managing any project. Even when a project doesn’t have limits to these variables (a case I’ve never seen), these are the three key variables. As I work further on my book on project management (read more about it here), I find that the tradeoff among these variables comes up all the time. With that in mind, let’s look at these variables more closely.

Time. This is clear, it is the amount of time available to complete the project. This is also the variable that proves most frustrating to project managers. Since its consumption rate is invariable, there is nothing you can do to change it. You simply have to add more when you need more. Because of this, time is the variable that gets played around with the most. It is also the variable that is most visible — everyone inside and outside the project knows when you change the date.

Quality. This is less clear, it is the measurement of the end result of the project. It is not only how good the result is, but it also encompasses what the result is. If you add or remove features from the project, you are adjusting the quality of the end result. Very often, especially when it refers to the “goodness” of the result, this is a subjective measure, which doesn’t make it any easier to adjust. All too often this is seen as fixed by the leadership, and yet the only real variable by those doing the actual work. They can’t change the project date, they can’t choose to spend more money on the project, but they sure can effect what the end result is.

Quality is the first variable that people downgrade

Quality is the first variable that people downgrade; some do it so easily and quickly it never even makes it to the table as a variable to be considered. They simply do their task in the easiest, quickest way they can, and before you know it, all the platitudes from management about quality being “job one” are tossed aside. Unfortunately this is also the variable that is least visible to anyone outside the depths of the project. The customer, and even the project leadership, often never know up front when this variable has been compromised.

Price. This is the cost of the project, but it is much more complex than the raw dollars, euros, or drachmas to get the job done. It is the cost of the materials, to be sure, and the cost of the wages when you throw more people at the project to try to meet the deadline. But price also should be looked at much more broadly to include the cost of relationships with dependents and suppliers, the cost on morale of the team, even the cost of casualties and/or lives if the project is that kind of project. Too often these variables get overlooked, or are considered peripheral damage, when in fact they can and should be considered when any project tradeoffs are made.

Too often these variables get overlooked

I find this set of tradeoffs to be the most valuable variables for a manager to consider when thinking about making any changes whatsoever to a project. I find it useful to sit back in a chair, stare at the ceiling and carefully consider what happens if you play with any one of these variables.

Think about what happens when you slip the date on this project. You may get more done, you may get things tidied up more. But it will also cost more in wages. And it will keep project pressure on the team for longer. If you decide to add features, it will cost more and it will take more time. Perhaps you could throw more people at the problem to solve the time equation, but as Frederick Brooks highlights in his wonderful “Mythical Man-Month” (ISBN: 0201835959) you certainly won’t get a 1 for 1 benefit from those helping hands. And if you decide to do it cheaper, something has to give, and it almost certainly will be quality — in both the ‘features’ and ‘quality’ meanings of the term.

So as you think about your project, remember this triad. It has never served me wrong, and will always provide a wonderful context for even the most complex of project management tradeoffs.