Project Management Institute

Is everybody happy?

by Kenneth E. Atwater, PMP

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AS ANY SEASONED project manager knows, the answer to the question, “Is everybody happy?” is a resounding, “NO!” Well, not all at the same time, anyway. Every project manager has to deal with the triple constraint of balancing time, cost, and quality. (Some refer to schedule, budget, and performance, which is essentially the same thing.)

Balancing client, project team, and employer expectations while learning not to push their hot buttons will keep everyone cool throughout the project.

As professionals we use many tools to keep things in balance. We develop detailed schedules with the most powerful project management software available. Reports are generated showing the critical path, total float, and free float. Earned value calculations are developed to make sure the project stays on budget as well as for trends forecasting. We may even add a Monte Carlo simulation analysis of the schedule in order to predict with certitude the probability of meeting a specified schedule date. A quality plan is developed to make sure that the project product or service meets specified criteria. Quality stage-gates are incorporated into the project plan from the very beginning.

This article is about the “other” triple constraint that the project manager must balance: client, project team, and employer expectations. This triple constraint is just as critical to project success, but the quantitative tools are largely unavailable. Balancing client, project team, and employer expectations is made more difficult because they are constantly changing. I worked on one project where this was called “creative tension.” On other projects it was referred to as a physical discomfort in the lower part of the human anatomy. Since there are few formal tools that I am aware of, the project manager must rely on his or her people and communications skills. As a consultant, I find myself in this situation on every project. There are some things I have learned that may prove helpful. The recommendations don't apply just to consultants, however. In-house project managers also must satisfy internal clients, their bosses, and the project team.


Kenneth E. Atwater, PMP, is managing principal of the project management practice with Xerox Connect Inc., a vendor-neutral IT solutions provider. He also teaches project management at Keller Graduate School of Management in Chicago.

You Can't Please All the People All the Time (a.k.a. It Is What It Is). Article 3, Section E, in the PMI® Code of Ethics states that as project management professionals we will, “Be honest and realistic in reporting project quality, cost, and time.” In short, we will tell the truth. Doing so is bound to upset someone at some point. It is instructive for the project manager to understand this concept when trying to balance the desires of the project team, the client, and his or her employer. If project managers try to be all things to all people, they will usually end up being nothing to anyone.

The project manager must continue to report the status of the project as accurately as possible. It would be wrong and unethical to couch any status reports based on who is to receive the report, or the perceived notion that one of the stakeholders may not like the news and become upset. In fact, consistent and accurate reporting will help set expectations and in the long run reduce the likelihood that one of the big three will be upset, or if so, at least not for an extended period of time. People don't like having other people upset with them, and project managers are no exception. However, project management is fraught with conflict. At some point in any project, the client, project team, or your employer will be less than pleased with how the project is being managed. Professional project managers understand and accept this fact of life; after all, it is what it is.

Don't Play One Group Against Another. All the individuals—client, project team, and employer—are key to the overall success of the project. Sometimes in an effort to protect themselves project managers may play one group against another. For example, a consultant may tell the project team, “I agree that the time frames are unreasonable, but that's what the client and our employer want.” Ostensibly this is done to demonstrate to the team members that the project manager is on their side. This is wrong! While the project manager may gain short-term accolades from the project team, in the long run he or she will lose credibility not only with the project team, but also with the client and his or her employer. If the project manager is concerned about the schedule, it should be addressed directly with those individuals empowered to make a change.

The project manager should be concerned with balancing the needs and desires of all the parties. This can best be done by open and honest communications. Rather than trying to play the project team against the other stakeholders, it would be better to try to get project team members to see the project from the points of view of the client and their employer. By the same token, every reasonable effort should be made to get the client to understand that the project team brings unique and valuable experience to the table regarding the effort required to complete certain tasks. By keeping all parties focused on the common goal of project success the project manager should be able to avoid this hazard.

All project participants should accept a formal communication plan established at the outset of the project. Such a plan will minimize the inclination to play games because it will serve to keep expectations in focus and show that the project is meeting those expectations.

Know What Makes Them Tick and When. Each of the three parties involved in this balancing act has different desires, or hot buttons, during the term of the project. Knowing these desires and acting accordingly can greatly enhance the chances of keeping everyone happy (or at least avoid everyone being unhappy at the same time). The members of the project team usually want challenging assignments, respect for the skills they bring to the table, and inclusion in decisions that affect their lives. The client or internal customer may be primarily concerned with meeting a given schedule at a given price (not necessarily in that order). If your employer is a consulting company, it usually is seeking a long-term relationship and increased billable hours (again, not necessarily in that order).

When including the project team in decisions, the project manager could challenge the team to think of new ways to perform project tasks in order to stay on schedule and within budget. One of the first things the project manager should do is set realistic goals regarding cost and schedule with the client/internal customer. Once expectations are set, it is important that the client be kept informed of project schedule and costs. Earned value analysis is perhaps the most useful tool a project manager has in his or her repertoire. If you work for a consulting company, like I do, you must balance billable hours with the goal for a long-term relationship with the client. These two goals are not incompatible. One thing that can be done is to look for other opportunities to provide work for the client. Doing so will begin to establish a long-term relationship. Perhaps billable hours can be adjusted, depending on the length of the assignment.


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Get Certified. Credibility is the sine qua non of a project manager's skills. The vast majority of a project manager's time is spent communicating with the “big three.” Most of that time is spent trying to persuade the client, project team members, and your employer to do things that will increase the likelihood that the project will be brought in on time, on budget, and on qualityy Since, as project managers, we rarely have authority commensurate with our responsibility, we must rely on other means of persuasion.

Our ability to persuade project participants will be greatly enhanced if we are believed to be experts in our field. Simply having the appellation “project manager” after your name is not enough. The title of project manager has become as ubiquitous in corporate America as Beanie Babies in department stores (and, unfortunately, about as meaningful). Certification is an independent verification that one has obtained a certain level of knowledge of project management principles. Once certified, we must demonstrate how that knowledge is beneficial to all project participants. We must show clearly how the knowledge areas contained in the PMBOK® Guide are applicable and add value to the project management process. It may be necessary to educate project participants on the significance of the PMP® designation. They need to understand the breadth of the written examination as well as the educational requirements. Perhaps the most relevant aspect to clients is the level of experience required to become certified.

You Never Really Arrive. As it is with cost, schedule, and quality, the “other” triple constraint requires active management throughout the life of the project. Likewise, as project managers, we will be called upon to exercise our judgment and make prudent trade-offs. Keeping the needs and expectations of all project participants in equipoise is the ultimate goal. Doing so may require the project manager to adopt the rumination of Mr. Spock in one of the Star Trek movies: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

BALANCING CLIENT, PROJECT TEAMS, and employer expectations is as important as balancing cost, schedule, and quality throughout the life of the project. While formal tools such as earned value and quality gates may not be available, simply understanding that the “other” triple constraint exists is beneficial to the project manager. Becoming certified and applying the project management principles found in the PMBOK® Guide, I believe, are essential to long-term success in the project management profession. images


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This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM Network November 1999

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