The fourth constraint: relationships


Relationships affect time, cost, and quality; any trade-off on the quality of relationships will eventually surface elsewhere in the project. Isn't it time we gave this critical factor its due in time and attention?

by Russ Volckmann
Joan Knutson, Contributing Editor

SCHEDULE, BUDGET AND QUALITY: these are the critical variables in project management, often referred to as the triple constraints. The core task in project management is to manage each of them, as well as the implications of each for the others. If you decrease budget, there will be an impact on the schedule and/or on the quality of the product. When the budget is decreased or the schedule is tightened, some functionality will probably have to be sacrificed.

In the same way, effective relationships are critical to the success of our projects. The quality of relationships within a project and between a project organization and its external stakeholders will be manifested in the overall performance of the project.

What constitutes an effective relationship? That's a bit harder to define. We know that in managing conflicts, resolution is not always the best goal. Some conflicts are better avoided so that work can continue or that individuals can continue to work together on a bounded task. So it is with relationships. Relationships are dynamic and unpredictable. As a consequence, we must focus on how we sustain workable relationships over time, not on living up to some predetermined model of what constitutes a “good” or “bad” relationship.

Each project exists in a different cultural context, with a different set of core values, norms and expectations. The qualities of relationships important to those cultures and for that particular project will vary. In one project, sharing information widely within the project may be important, but sharing information with the customer may be avoided. In another project, sharing information with the customer may be critical, since their input to changing conditions may be critical for the success of the project. Within the same project, the need for sharing may vary across phases.

A Cautionary Tale. A few years ago I consulted on the start-up phase of a software development project. We assisted the project executives and project managers in gaining some agreement on their approach to the project. They chose a strong team strategy, which included collocation of technical and user staff, joint sponsorship from the user and technical branches of the organization, and joint project management (a user and technical project manager). Not long after our work was completed things began to deteriorate. This project that started with such high hopes ended up costing the parent company several millions of dollars, with no useful product. The leaders of that project are no longer with the company. The project was killed and a new approach to meeting the organization's needs was undertaken under new leadership.

Luckily, there are lessons to be learned from failure. Here are some insights that this project provided into the importance of relationships in project management.


The executive responsible for the project established a very strong relationship with the project managers. Among them, however, they colluded to present senior executives with a “no problems” status of the project on an ongoing basis. Executive management was fooled into believing that the project was progressing very well. When the truth came out, the project managers and responsible executive left the company and the embarrassed senior executives were left to search for a way out of their dilemma.

The project managers initially advocated a strong team approach to this project. As the project proceeded, however, the user and technical staff became upset about how the project was being managed and had growing concerns about the technical direction of the project. Their attempts to raise these issues were rebuffed. The project managers even proclaimed that the technical and user staff were no longer to directly speak to each other, but that they must communicate through the project managers. Within a year, many of the technical and user staff left the project and, in some cases, the company.

In both cases individuals were acting on sets of beliefs, values and assumptions about relationships. The project managers believed and valued their exercise of control over relationships and the flow of information. Staff believed that it was important to share information and ideas across functional boundaries.

A Web of Relationships. It is critical to be clear about the quality of relationships that contribute to project success. This can be done by identifying who the players are and what their roles will be, articulating the critical qualities of these relationships, and designing support systems for these qualities.

Challenges in Attending to Relationships in Projects

  • ∎ We approach such a task with unexamined assumptions, beliefs and values, which we are unable (or unwilling) to investigate and reconsider.
  • ∎ We reduce our learning from experiences in relationships because of fear: fear of another's power over us, fear of having difficult exchanges with other individuals, fear of not being liked or valued.
  • ∎ We are so action-oriented that we are unwilling to invest time in attending to and learning from relationships.
  • ∎ We believe that individuals must sink or swim on their own merits, rather than considering the context of relationships within which those individuals must operate.
  • ∎ We polarize “good” relationships that work from “organizational politics.” These are, in fact, intertwined. Destructive politics result from a non-alignment of desired outcomes for the project and/or differences about the priority of the project relative to other factors.

Actions We Can Take to Attend to Relationships on Projects

  • ∎ Articulate roles—are they project management roles or project team roles? Clarify how these roles relate to each other.
  • ∎ Be clear about shared purposes and goals. These are the foundation for relationships that work.
  • ∎ Converse with executives and resource managers to determine the roles they will be performing in project management and how they relate to other roles.
  • ∎ Capture critical elements of these roles in the project charter.
  • ∎ As the project unfolds or as new phases are entered, reexamine relationships by identifying what is working, what you have each learned so far, and how roles and relationships may be adjusted for the next phase of the project.
  • ∎ Take the time during project start-up to define the relationships within the core team that will contribute to success. Develop systems to support the quality of relationships you wish to support.
  • ∎ Reward and recognize those who develop effective relationships. Build into rewards and recognition systems support for the development of valued relationship qualities. Reward and recognize all of those who contribute to making relationships work to support project success.
  • ∎ Publicize ways that effective relationships have contributed to project successes. Talk about this in team meetings.

To begin this process, you must examine the two “umbrella” groups within a project: the project team and project management.

The project team is composed of three groups. The first is the core team, composed of members who will take a continuing active role through much of the life of the project. In a space systems project this includes leaders in computer hardware, software, materials, and members of the project office. In-and-outers are those who make a contribution, leave, and return. This can happen several times over the life of a project. In a software development project, database leadership and technical staff may be in this position. Customers are often in-and-outers, as are quality inspectors. One-timers are those who come into a project, complete a task and leave, never to be seen again on that project. In a construction project, a subcontractor for site preparation may be a one-timer.

One aspect of relationship with in-and-outers is how information will be shared so that they can get up to speed. Another may be how these individuals are integrated with core team members with whom they must work closely.

The more complex the project, the more complex is the web of relationships. A major challenge for project management is to weave this set of relationships into a fabric that supports project success. The requirements for doing that will vary.

Project management consists of not just the project manager, but functional or resource managers and executives as well. Each has a role to play; each makes a contribution to the project. Yet project management really constitutes the web of relationships among these roles. What these roles are and what contribution will be required for project success will vary by project and context. By articulating these relationships, their shared purposes and supporting requirements, we lay a foundation for project success.

Project charters were developed to assist in this task. My experience suggests that many executives and project managers develop charters as a bureaucratic task, without sufficient consideration to the web of relationships among those represented in this part of the model. The task is not so much to develop a complex document that spells out details about relationships and roles, rather it is the conversations that people have about the kinds of relationships that will help the project be successful. The principles generated by these conversations may be included in the project charter.

WHEN WE RECOGNIZE that project management is an activity that emerges from a web of relationships, this challenges our “hero” model of the project manager. Heroic acts are events in the life of a project: coming up with an effective solution to a problem; devising a way of effectively managing a risk; a creative design; or leading the team to meet a challenge. But the life of projects is more than a series of these events and heroic acts occur at all levels of a project organization. Over the long haul, relationships between project managers, resource managers and executives provide for successful project management. That's why the quality of relationships within a project deserves to be elevated to the status of “the fourth constraint.” ∎

Russ Volckmann has over 20 years experience in organization development consultation and training, as an individual consultant and in team consultation approaches.

PM Network • May 1997



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