The Iron Triangle is a model of the constraints of project management.
In a nutshell
- The Iron Triangle evaluates how the constraints of time, budget and quality limit the likelihood of a project being delivered to the original scope.
- There are three power moves that can defeat the Iron triangle.
- With the right extended team in place, it can bring in additional resources and capability to release constraints.
The Iron Triangle is usually the bad guy. The enemy of progress. Otherwise known as the project management triangle, it is a business tool that illustrates how constraints of time, budget and quality limit our ability to successfully deliver a project.
But in this story, there is a new hero: the agency. Rather than thinking only about the resources and capabilities of your business, we look to reframe the available inputs to include agency partners.
And in doing so, we show how the Iron Triangle can be defeated in just three moves.
In walks the bad guy – the Iron Triangle?
"Good, fast, cheap. Choose two."
“You can have it fast and cheap but it can’t be good”
Chances are that in your workplace you’ve heard phrases like this in the last few days.
Developed in the 1950s, the Iron Triangle was designed to understand and evaluate how the constraints of time, budget or quality limit the likelihood of a project being successfully delivered to the original scope.
It was built on a series of negative premises:
- A project’s successful delivery against scope is constrained by cost, time and quality.
- Your choices are finite, you can only trade-off between constraints (you can have speed and quality, but go over budget; or deliver quickly within the budget at the expense of time, and so on).
- An extension of your team can bring additional resources and capability to release constraints.
The principles described above are limiting. The focus on trade-offs leads to negotiations around the extent of scope reduction.
Is it possible to win against these constraints? How can you defeat the Iron Triangle of project management?
Here comes the hero: the agency
I’ve always been intrigued by the definition of the word agency. As a pragmatist from the South Island, I’ve always focused on the simpler definition of what an agency is - a business or organisation providing a particular service on behalf of another business, person, or group.
The second definition of agency is more nuanced but is ultimately more relevant to this discussion - the capacity to act or exert power:
It's fascinating to think about these two definitions in terms of TRA’s original and full name:
The Research Agency – under definition one, it does exactly what it says on the tin.
The Research Agency – under definition two, points to the role a partner can play in using research to drive action or change.
This definition is especially relevant in the current business environment. Under constant budget pressures and an increasingly complex and unpredictable operating environment, our clients are often restricted in capability, budget or time. To defeat the Iron Triangle we have to reframe the available inputs to include those of agency partners.
- From: An external business used to complete a specific task.
- To: An extension of your team that can bring additional resources and capability to release constraints.
The resolution: the heroes complete the quest.
What moves might you take in the real world, thinking specifically about insights?
Agency power move one: Use the power of the crowd to defeat cost.
There will be some situations where you will need an absolutely bespoke solution from the agency partner. In reality however, many of the challenges you pose to your insights agency are similar to those posed by other companies in other verticals. Collecting brand funnel metrics is a very real example of this.
Tracksuit is our joint venture with Previously Unavailable, where we’re looking to make brand funnel metrics accessible to a wider business audience. There are lots of smart plays in Tracksuit but one of the key pillars is a crowd-based data collection approach. We introduce clients in cohorts and in doing so reduce the cost of data collection.
In the scenario above, a solution like Tracksuit would unlock the cost constraint and defeat the Iron triangle.
Agency power move two: Use existing insight assets to defeat time.
One of the biggest advantages an agency partner can bring to the table is what they already know. Sometimes this can help accelerate the design of a research exercise. In other situations, this can provide a resource that can be directly mined to answer the question at hand.
Over the last 4-5 years we’ve been building up a series of knowledge resources in the cultural strategy space, including our global Cultural Currents framework and the local work around Kiwi Codes. These resources are often used to accelerate a project based on what we already know or have access to.
In the scenario above, a solution like Cultural Strategy would unlock the time constraint and defeat the Iron triangle.
Agency power move three: Use expertise to release quality constraints.
One of the most unrealised superpowers of the insights agency is the perspective accumulated over hundreds of projects across the team and over time.
Insight experts can take one look at a potential brand campaign or an NPD and immediately identify two or three ways it would be improved. Directly applying this expertise can greatly improve the work being developed.
In the scenario above, providing expertise would unlock the quality constraint and defeat the Iron triangle.
The iron triangle in defeat
To conclude, this is a story about a good guy beating the baddie – with the right team in place. The super-powers of the insight agency can be reframed to expand the resources available and defeat the Iron Triangle in project management with just three moves.
This article was published in the latest issue of Frame magazine.