Beyond the triple constraints
nine elements defining project success today
Kathy Milhauser, ABD, Director of Institutional Assessment, Concordia University
Most people engaged with the Project Management Institute are familiar with the triple “constraints” and their relationship to one another. These efficiency-based measures are often touted as success measures and incorrectly so. Experienced project managers know that there are a variety of constraints that must be taken into consideration if long-term organizational viability is to be supported by “successful” projects. While there is much that has been written about the triple constraints little research has been conducted to determine trends associated with the change project managers must make to address the (larger) needs of organizations today. Success, as measured by the triple constraints, of a single project does not ensure success for the organization at large. Effective project managers must work to deliver their projects within the parameters of scope, schedule, and cost, but importantly do so by success measures of organizational effectiveness and increasing its adaptability to change. To address some of the confusion associated with the triple constraints the findings from a qualitative research study, yielding nine theoretical propositions outlining “project success” today, is detailed in this paper.
In a broad sense, organizational work can be categorized as either operational work or project work. Both are important. To efficiently carry out operational work helps to ensure stewardship and prudent application of organizational resources. To efficiently carry out project work helps to address needed changes in the organization due to customer demands, market fluctuations, competition, new product opportunities, and other pressures that threaten organizational viability. In short, just as operational efficiency is an important component to organizational success, project efficiency is an imperative for organizational success.
Although it is well known that project work is important and following a disciplined approach is an organizational critical success factor (NASCIO, 2005), most projects fail. A few years ago, Rahschulte’s (2007, p. 1) research chronicled challenged project initiatives. The following is a summation of his findings:
“According to Champy (1995), two-thirds of total quality management and change related projects fail, or at best are less than successful. Similarly, Kotter’s (1996) evaluation of organizational change initiatives concluded that many fail, only a few succeed, and most produce results that are less than expected. Later, and more precisely, Kotter (1998) noted that fewer than 15% of companies successfully transform themselves to address the pressures of change. Cameron and Quinn (1999) noted that most change efforts fall short of attaining their desired outcomes. Burke (2002) succinctly, but generally, noted that most efforts to change an organization ‘do not work’ (p. 1).”
Over the years, project failure has resulted in focused attention on designing better theories, processes, and models to plan and lead projects. Although Box (1979) noted, “All models are wrong. Some are useful” (p. 202), perhaps in some cases models are both wrong and not useful. Regarding the often used project term “triple constraints,” Baratta (2006) concluded that this is a model that is both wrong and not useful.
Baratta (2006) was making a point that still needs furthering and that is, the triple constraints model is in need of additional clarity and depth. Clarity is needed in terms of what it is and why it is important. Depth is needed in terms of coverage and reach. Furthering the triple constraints model in both clarity and depth is the aim of this paper.
The Triple Constraints
The triple constraints model suggests “cost is a function of time and scope, that these three factors are related in a defined and predictable way” (Baratta, 2006, p. 1). Most people engaged with the Project Management Institute (www.pmi.org) are familiar with these, and other, constraints and their relationship to one another. The Project Management Institute’s A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (2008) details constraints of project work and to be sure there are more than three. However, the most often cited constraints are cost, scope, and time. According to the PMBOK® Guide:
“The relationship among these factors is such that if any one factor changes, at least one other factor is likely to be affected. For example, if the schedule is shortened, often the budget needs to be increased to add addition resources to complete the same amount of work in less time. If a budget increase is not possible, the scope or quality may be reduced to deliver a product in less time for the same budget. Project stakeholders may have differing ideas as to which factors are the most important, creating an even greater challenge. Changing the project requirements may create additional risks. The project team must be able to assess the situation and balance the demands in order to deliver a successful project” (p. 7).
Even experienced managers often find themselves mired in the function and performance of these three alone. This becomes detrimental to organizational success, especially when the project manager and project team evaluates success based only on the triple constraints. These efficiency-based measures are often touted as success measures and incorrectly so. It is for these reasons that Baratta (2006) notes the model as both wrong and not useful, and is calling for a reengineering of the triple constraints.
Baratta (2006) is not the only one calling for a reengineering of the triple constraints, especially if used as success determinants. Tsuda (2006) noted that “Scope, Schedule, Cost—they are classics, but do they remain useful? I’ve heard many practitioners call the Triple Constraints (TC) obsolete or, at least, inadequate” (para 1). In their book Reinventing Project Management, Shenhar and Dvir (2007) suggested that the theory of the triple constraint impedes project success since it incorrectly defines success. Similarly, van de Westhuizen and Fitzgerald (n.d.) concluded, “time, budget and specifications are not sufficient to measure project management success” (p. 4). Correctly, these authors and practitioners suggest project success stems from far more than simply project scope, cost, and time.
It is important to note that focusing success on the triple constraints is not a product of PMI. The call for this reengineering is, however, in part due to misinformed conclusions stemming from PMI work products, particularly about project management and project success. For instance, some consider the key success factor of projects and project managers is the triple constraints—that is to complete projects on time, within budget, and in scope acceptable to the customer (Greer, 1999). However, be mindful that the purpose of projects is to help improve business results, including organizational viability. Projects aim to bring about a new condition for an organization—a new product, a new use of technology, a new business process or perhaps partnership, to mention but a few examples. To be sure, projects are initiated to bring about a new state for the organization, and therefore, projects are initiated for business results, not project results. Indeed, project efficiency measures are important, just as efficiency measures are important for operational work. However, they are not a complete measure of success because they are often myopically focused on the project alone and not the organization’s business condition at large. Further, and let’s be clear, the phraseology “triple constraints” is not used in the fourth edition of the PMBOK® Guide.
In an attempt to help resolve the misinformation about the triple constraints (and seeing project managers inadvertently impede organizational success in our companies via the use of triple constraints) we conducted a qualitative research study to investigate the perception of the triple constraints and inductively determined a nine-point barometer of project success, which can well be imagined includes measures for the project and the organization.
This research was conducted because while there is much that has been written about the triple constraints (Lee, 2010), little research has been conducted to determine trends associated with the change project managers must make to address the (larger) needs of organizations today. Success, as measured by the triple constraints, of a single project does not ensure success for the organization at large. Effective project managers must work to deliver their projects within the parameters of scope, schedule, and cost, but importantly do so by success measures of organizational effectiveness and increasing its adaptability to change.
A qualitative research study was based on grounded theory and conducted among project professionals to address the success of projects beyond the triple constraints. The yield of nine elements (or propositions) needed to define success in today’s project work stemmed from semi-structured interviews and small focus groups conducted among the sample of 27 professionals. The sample did not represent a cross-section of the organization, but rather was identified as expert project personnel within their organizations, thus serving as good informants of data needed to theorize a new model of “success.”
Beyond the Triple Constraints
Project success is clearly outlined in the PMBOK® Guide (PMI, 2008) as being “measured by product and project quality, timeliness, budget compliance, and degree of customer satisfaction” (p. 9). Success is further determined by the project team’s “appropriate processes,” “approach…to meet requirements,” and ability to “comply with requirements to meet stakeholder needs,” and “balance…competing demands of scope, time, cost, quality, resources, and risk” (p. 37). Teamwork is also noted as a requisite for project success (p. 229). This suggests that there is more to success than the triple constraints. Moreover, it is clear that the person responsible for project success is the project manager (p. 26). With the responsibility clearly understood, project managers were asked about project success and organizational success relative to project constraints.
One member of the sample summarized a common theme, which was, “We need to do better by putting success measures in place to help our projects.” Another member noted, “Accurate, complete, and actively used performance measures would allow our organization to more proactively manage projects.” Yet another noted that “Having actively managed measures would make a huge difference in our work. It would help better understand and assure success with projects.” To challenge these sentiments, another member noted that “Theoretically, actively used performance measures should assist in driving project decision-making and success, we still tend to focus on individual project measure rather than the larger program, portfolio, or organizational levels of success.” The probing question to derive more detailed data then was raised: So what should “project success” look like? How should “project success” be measured?
In addressing these questions, one member of the sample noted, “We do not have good tools to diagnose the organization or the success of our projects right now.” Another summarized the work of the focus group as follows: “We still can use the triple constraints, but they need to be balanced with other aspects of project work and “the business.” This group alluded to what others have noted as “net benefits” (Baccarini, 1999; Marchewka, 2003; Thomsett, 2002; Wateridge, 1998), which are success measures based on individual and organizational impact. The following are the nine themes categorized by the sample.
- Project efficiency: As noted, the triple constraints are helpful, but it is important to recognize that they are not, individually nor collectively, the measures of a successful project. There are, however, tools for project managers to more efficiently manage project work. As noted in the PMBOK® Guide (PMI, 2008), they are three among many tools for this type work. The PMBOK® Guide notes the need to balance the following project constraints: scope, quality, schedule, budget, resources, and risk (p. 6). Moreover, it is noted that balancing constraints is not limited to these alone, but rather these should be integrated along with critical constraints and success measures of the organization and project stakeholders.
- Program efficiency: Many projects that are initiated today are part of a larger program. The importance of the aforementioned project efficiency is heightened when part of a program. Program success is measured with different metrics as compared to project success. To be sure, for programs to be successful, the projects of the program must be successful, but the measurement data, reporting, and decision-making is different. In a simplistic form, projects are much more tactical and aligned with a business function whereas the program success is determined at a more organizational strategy level and organizational level goals.
- Portfolio efficiency: Because all organizations have capacity limitations when it comes to money, talent, time, and other resources, working on the right projects at the right time with the right resources is paramount. As such, there are portfolio concerns and measures that must be used to determine “success.”
- Organizational business results: This finding is akin to what Cohen (2001) noted in his PMI Symposium “Beyond the triple constraints: Developing a business venture approach to project management.” According to him, the triple constraints must be augmented to include a project’s overall contribution to organizational value to determine success.
- Teamwork: Project teams are often developed and disbanded based on the project. Part of “success” determination today is how well the team functions. Those that deliver their product and in doing so develop a stronger bond of working with one another, wanting to work with one another, and working toward high performance are successful. Anything to the contrary risks not only the project’s success, but importantly the future success of projects and the organization. Team building and teamwork cannot be underestimated.
- Individual development: As noted in teamwork, developing high performance is a requisite success factor among organizational and project personnel. Similarly, individual development is also a success factor today. Many project team members today find themselves working initiatives that are unique and in which current conditions have not been experienced to date. Such conditions cause the constant need for learning and development. As such, individual development is a success factor on projects today. This development creates the need to foster mentorships (often across projects) and to have personal development goals understood by the project team so as to support one another with individual tasks, team tasks, and organizational deliverables in a way that learning becomes acculturated by project and organizational personnel.
- PMO development: Successful projects contribute intellectual capital to the organization’s PMO. This capital can be in the form of lessons learned, tools, templates, training, and other codified value that helps serve to expedite future projects and shorten learning curves for new employees and veteran employees working new initiatives. This success determinant is grounded in the need not only to learn (at an individual and team level), but importantly, to share that learning for the success of others.
- Performance management system for increased readiness: The need for learning is rooted in the idea of readiness. Project teams and organizations at large must work toward flexibility and plasticity when it comes to addressing pressures to change. A critical component in doing so is being open to measuring performance. Thus, each project should be testing and updating (or validating) a performance management system that aligns project work to programs to portfolios to business results and include individual, team, and PMO level development activities. Constantly measuring actual performance against a target goal and benchmark will help highlight areas of strengths and weaknesses from which better decisions can be made at an individual, team, and organizational level. Moreover, the use of such systems helps to spotlight and expedite periods of change.
- Systems thinking: The prior success determinates allude to the need for systems thinking. Net benefits need to be understood—that is, net benefits of customers and other key stakeholders all the way back to the project manager responsible for the project.
As noted by Newby (1998), “success can be a moving target” (para. 5). This is especially true when organizational work increases in complexity as noted by Kinser (2008). He concluded that “As the field of project management grows more complex and our jobs more challenging, it is possible to lose sight of the basic principles” (p. 6). Perhaps this is what is happening with the triple constraints. Understanding and managing scope, time, and cost constraints is important. Indeed balancing the triple constraints will always be important, project success relies on it, but not only these three.
With the increasing complexities of project work, project managers must become increasingly concerned beyond the triple constraints of their project. Sustaining a culture where projects are supported in response to organizational initiatives will require a much more strategic placement of project value within the organization. The nine propositions previously outlined should help project managers to not only manage their projects toward successful completion, but additionally to market the value of their projects and themselves as viable partners in the journey toward sustained organizational success. This paper and presentation highlights the current trend beyond the triple constraints to the nine elements defining project success today in an attempt to broaden the perspective of the project management function toward elevated project value.
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© 2010, Tim Rahschulte, Ph.D., Kathy Milhauser, ABD
Originally published as part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Washington, DC, USA