Understanding the Project Management Triangle

Project Management Triangle

How to Satisfy Customers When You Can’t Do it All

Have you ever lost business because your small company simply doesn’t have the resources to accomplish everything that the customer wants? You may not realize that customer satisfaction only requires you to meet two of three requirements: the right time frame, affordability, and scope (essentially defined as the amount and type of work that must be met to deliver a good-quality product or service).

Granted, that last statement was overly-simplistic. But, as a general rule, the Project Management Triangle (also known as Triple Constraint, Iron Constraint, and probably a whole host of other terms) provides you with the insight you need to give customers everything that they need to achieve satisfaction.

First, Understand that Customer Needs and Wants Aren’t the Same Thing

When I bought my home, I wanted something akin to a mansion. On the other hand, I needed to have an affordable and solid place to live, in a decent neighborhood, with enough space to live my life comfortably. To this day, I’d still like a mansion (and the staff to clean it), but I continue to live in the same house. Since it was affordable, I now own it outright, and I certainly don’t regret that I didn’t buy more than I needed.

If you can show that you really understand and embrace customer needs and can meet and maybe even exceed them, you can generally convince them to forego a few frills.

You Can Meet Customer Needs by Addressing Two of the Three Points of the Triangle

This is where the project management triangle fits in. When you can’t meet all customer wants, you can generally make the sale by changing one of the three main factors without compromising the overall quality of the deliverable.

The right price

If they want a lower price, then you need to control project costs, typically by reducing resources. Maybe you can bring fewer employees into the project to reduce your expenditures; even though fewer workers will probably extend the timeline. Perhaps you can convince them that silver widgets are actually more durable than the gold ones they requested; knowing this, they may happily pull back on this part of the project scope.

You’d be surprised by the number of ways that you can reduce costs to retain profitability for your offerings when you examine the other two corners of the triangle. It’s perfectly possible to retain your high-quality and meet customer needs, even if you don’t deliver everything that customers want.

Timely delivery

So, what happens when a customer needs final delivery of a 3-week project within one week? If they’re willing to pay more, then you can bring in more resources to get the job done more quickly.

You can also alter the scope. For example, if they request a shipment of 10,000 widgets in a week, it doesn’t hurt to ask why they need so many so quickly. You might learn that they really only need to meet a 1,000-widget emergency in a week, but they want to avoid extra shipping charges when you send the balance of the order. If extra shipping costs are no issue for you, then agree to deliver the needed supply in a week, and pick up the tab to ship the non-emergency widgets within the appropriate time frame

Project scope

The scope is the actual project or product requirements that you must meet to develop a good-quality deliverable that meets customer needs. You can deliver the most outlandish requirements when time and price options are unlimited, but this is the real world where you’ll probably have to negotiate within the three triangle corners. First, look at the scope that the customer has defined. If it’s not reasonable, then you may need to find ways to adjust it.

For example, let’s say that the customer is looking for flexible custom accounting software. You already intend to build amazing flexibility into your design — until you learn that they want it to automatically adjust to every possible future regulatory change. Granted, you can’t design for the unknown, but you can include reasonable pricing for future software changes within the project scope. Of course, you’ll probably want to put a time limit on that agreement.

When customers are adamant about the scope, then you may have to add more resources or spend more time. As you’re about to learn, it’s all about learning how to negotiate.

Educated Customers Often Facilitate Negotiations

You probably know much more about your products or services than the customer knows, so their wish list may not accurately describe their actual needs. I’ll illustrate this with one of my personal stories.

While discussing a technical writing project with a new customer prospect, I first listened carefully to their vision. Then, after parroting their wants and needs back to them, I proceeded to use that information to propose a very different vision of project deliverables based on what they really needed. I illustrated my knowledge without ever talking down to them. They realized that the deliverables they wanted would not meet their needs. I re-defined the scope, but I made the sale. Since they were very happy with the finished deliverables they continued to come back for more documentation needs.

Learn how to gently make sure that your prospects recognize and respect your superior understanding of a project. Even if you adjust one of the triangle corners, you’ll make more sales — and deliver successful outcomes.

Scope, Time, Budget: Pick Two

If you embrace the above motto, then you have gone a long way toward learning about project management. Admittedly, I recognize that there’s plenty of supplemental coursework that goes into this subject, but this is a darn good start.

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