The Project Notebook

Projects Through Triangular Lenses

The triangle is one of the simplest plane figures — only three sides. As one side changes length, the others respond by growing longer or shorter to remain connected and encapsulate the area within. I like to think of the equilateral triangle (three equal sides) as representing a healthy tension. Change too much of one side and the others need to respond and the sides become unequal.

Of course as readers you are familiar with the triple constraints triangle of cost, time, and quality, enclosing the scope of a project. As I reflected on the shape and behavior, I realized there are many triangular relationships which can help govern our projects. We need to seek balance for these triangles as well to keep our projects healthy. Let’s take a look at some other triangular relationships to see what I mean.

Stepping out of the project domain and into education for a moment, one of my clients looks at enrollment, attendance, and academic progress as a means to increase high school graduation rates. The focus is enrolling students into their program, making sure they attend, and making sure they get a solid education. But they need to invest their energy equally to make sure operations stay in balance. If they invest only in enrollment, for example, they won’t be able to guarantee students attend or progress.

Perhaps as well known in the project world as the triple constraints is the triangle representing the balance of responsibility, accountability, and authority. We need this balance to maintain our position as project manager, however if this triangle isn’t in place and balanced, the project work may not get done. Team members who aren’t held accountable and responsible, or given the authority to carry out their tasks have little or no incentive to complete project work in an environment which has many competing tasks to complete. They will turn to the work they know best, the work that provides personal rewards or interest, or use other criteria to determine what to complete. This may or may not be the work needed to successfully complete the project.

While at GE, we had a triangular relationship that governed not just our project work, but the entire division. It was the relationship between revenue, quality, and client satisfaction. This relationship led to project and operational excellence. We had the metrics to prove it! As quality defects rose, the number of dissatisfied clients increased, and revenue decreased. One year I remember in particular, this got very out of balance. The number of high level defects were small, but the number of low level defects rose to three times their normal level. The quantity of these seemingly trivial defects became annoying to clients. We stopped project work and undertook a few months of repair work to bring this back into balance. As the low level defects decreased over the months, client satisfaction and revenue rose. Did I mention this triangular relationship was important to everyone — it factored prominently into how compensation was decided. So even if the responsibility, authority, and accountability got out of balance, everyone was motivated to stay on track.

So next time you think about your project, regardless of the project life cycle phase, you may want to stop and look through your triangular lenses to make sure there is a healthy balance in key areas. It will help you make sure the project is successful since these other triangular relationships will ultimately impact your ability to control cost, time, and performance.

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© 2010-2012 Ray W. Frohnhoefer, MBA, PMP, CCP