The Mythical Triple Constraints

The triple constraints familiar to project managers – time, cost and scope – form the basis of much of the literature that discusses project management. Also called the iron triangle which includes quality in the middle of an equilateral triangle, this forms the heart of what a project leader is expected to manage when delivering a project.

The problem is, in practice, most organisations do not behave this way. Delays in decision making, changing priorities and chronic lack of attention can change the dynamic of how the triple constraints are juggled.

The fact is, most organisations have their own profiles for how the iron triangle is managed. There is typically a priority to the triple constraints and the project manager is wise to interview stakeholders to understand their management preferences.

There are some very straightforward triple constraint priorities. For example, quality is paramount if you are building a new medical device; if you are delivering a product in a regulatory environment that has an explicit deadline, time is most important. In most environments however, the triple constraint priority is not so clear cut. Management behaviour and organisational pressures will change the dynamic of your project and the priority of the triple constraints.

So, we need to remember our training in project management – but not hold on to it too tightly! The intelligently disobedient project leader will understand it is not like we read in PMBoK or the textbooks. There is a priority to the triple constraints – the sides of one or more of the triangle are pliable. Bend the wrong one however and you can get yourself in trouble quickly. By the same token, try to rigidly push all of the triple constraints too strongly as inflexible, and you can find yourself in the same doghouse!

Understand the REAL priority of the triple constraints…and you will be more successful, and less stressed, and that is something we all could use – less stress!

Here is the approach I take to understand the priority of the triple constraints:

Ask your sponsor which of the three sides of the triple constraint triangle is:

  1. the driver for the project; then confirm –
  2. the second one that needs to be optimised; and finally validate –
  3. the third side of the triangle that will change when the others are manipulated. The changes here will need to be accepted OR if it changes too drastically, should cause a re-evaluation of the integrity of the project

Doing this at the start and regularly throughout the project and validating this information with the key stakeholders, will avert the dreaded wrath of the sponsor not getting what they had hoped for from your project.

Intelligent Disobedience Leadership delivers workshops, keynotes and coaching to assist you and your organization to practice constructive intelligent disobedience.   For further information, email us at 

The ways to cancel a project

There may be “fifty ways to leave your lover”, but many organizations can’t find even one way to cancel or suspend a project. Despite often being ‘the right thing to do’, cancelling a project – or even suggesting that a project should be cancelled – is typically an act of intelligent disobedience. Having a sound, substantial rationale for recommending the cancellation of a project can help.

Here are some commonly accepted reasons for cancelling or suspending a project:

  • Key Stakeholders are not “bought in”. Not only is this a very good reason for project cancellation, but they can also provide you with assistance and support when recommending the cancellation. By the way, this does not necessarily mean the project is not a good idea; it just means important people that are critical for the project’s success aren’t behind it. Time to cancel or suspend the project and regroup.
  • Current business priorities do not support moving the project forward. Business is fluid, and project portfolios need to be fluid as well. If sponsorship, business expertise or technical team members aren’t available to move the project forward it is time to confirm the priorities driving their workload. If their other activities are legitimately of higher importance, it is time to cancel or suspend the project. A project in this situation is a burden and a distraction, versus a vehicle for driving business value and it should be taken off the table.
  • Reacting to a sudden, new business pressure is the “agile” thing to do. I don’t mean running an agile project here; I mean being able and willing to change directions quickly in response to differing business needs. Having the patience to change gears on one item (suspending a project), and “embracing the urgency” to launch a different project or initiative can demonstrate a dedication to your business’ success that many people are unwilling, or find it difficult, to support.
  • Key stakeholder’s expectations are not aligned. This situation is often a silent project killer. Debates that need to be held don’t occur and, after wasting too much time and money, a project dies a fiery death as progress is halted when senior leaders expect the project team to do different things, or place emphasis on different activities. (See our “What we need is a good ole’ knock down debate” blog entry) Projects in this state should be suspended until alignment is reached, or killed if that alignment cannot be achieved and signed off.
  • The project just isn’t heading in the right direction. Our colleague Peter Harrison is fond of saying,” it is not the dollars you HAVE spent, it is the value you will get from the NEXT dollar you will spend that should drive your decisions.” If the project is not moving forward on a path towards delivering business value, you need to correct its course or cancel the project. This is the most difficult of cancellation reasons, as it is frequently perceived as a defeat, and could jeopardise jobs. However it is the high integrity thing to do…PMI members-check your ethics commitment here! If the project is not helping the business, and you continue to pursue the project, you may not be acting in a “high integrity” fashion.

Intelligent Disobedience Leadership delivers workshops on innovative leadership and increasing the productivity and effectiveness of your leadership team.  For further information, email us at    

What we need is a good ole’ knock down debate

As one of our clients was lamenting recently, a statement he made struck me. He said ”the launch of this project was proceeding so well, and then this debate suddenly surfaced!”

When I heard this, I was actually relieved. One of the more significant issues with projects is that people think they will be easier than they actually will be. Many people don’t understand that a significant change will occur as a result of the project, particularly when it is early in the project lifecycle. As the project moves forward, often the protests and angst surface later when you are on an agreed schedule, have contractors punching time against your project budget, and can’t easily afford delays.

So, I was indeed relieved to hear the debates had started early. Project launch is the perfect time to surface and address the stressors that project change brings to an organization.

Here are a few tips to trigger early, productive debates around your projects:

  • Layout the “final result.” Statements that can be helpful are “so when we are done with the project your department will do x, y and z differently. How do you intend on transitioning Carla, Sal and Paul from their current roles to new ones?” These questions can help you show the substance of the change sooner versus later.
  • Find potentially conflicting stakeholder objectives and propose specific targets against those objectives. If your stakeholder in marketing wants to spend 20% more with a target of increasing their customer base by 40%, that may sound like a good deal. However, if your comptroller has an objective to cut any increases in spending across the board, the 20% increase from marketing won’t sit well. These situations need to be tabled early; and the debate fully conducted!
  • Take the end customers view. Ask, “will these changes be transparent, or what needs to be done to ensure they are transparent to your customers?” If the changes AREN’T intended to be transparent, ask “how are you going to educate and transition your customers to the new processes and approaches?”
  • Where is the budget coming from, is it funded, and when is it available? One of the best ways to have a sponsor or stakeholder say “no” – versus you having to veto something – is to ask about the available funding. Nothing is totally free, so budget impacts need to be understood and discussed earlier versus later.

Seeking conflict as a means of resolving potential disagreements before they become bigger project issues is a great way to ensure your stakeholders understand the road ahead of them. It can also reduce your overall project risk, and keep you from being in the middle of a management battle over what YOU are doing.

Intelligent Disobedience Leadership provides workshops, coaching and consulting with a focus on courageous leadership and deploying intelligent disobedience constructively.  We can help you and your teams achieve better outcomes. For further information, email us at 

Guaranteeing our Work as Leaders

A daunting concept has been rattling in my mind recently…and it has been rattling loud enough for me to restart this Intelligent Disobedience blog. I look forward to sharing and hearing your thoughts on these entries that I intend to post on a regular basis!

We fully expect a guarantee for the work we receive from a plumber, electrician, or our automobile mechanic. However, guaranteeing our work as organizational leaders is not something we hear about – nor even contemplate – very often.

On the one hand, my brain is screaming out – but the circumstances are different! We have minimal control of the environment in which we work to deliver outcomes. In contrast, a plumber has very few variables out of his control, and can quickly and easily test his results and adjust things as required.

But, my mind keeps ticking over…on the other hand, what if we DID have control of the organizational environment variables or we could pose a set of conditions that – if they were established and remained in place – would inspire us as leaders to guarantee successful outcomes? What would those conditions look like?

Well, here is my first pass at what the conditions would have to be to consider this “unconsiderable” risk:

  • A sponsor with a stake in the game, the authority to bring and keep resources on an initiative, the funding to sustain the organization appropriately and the time to provide regular support and guidance;
  • An “all cards on the table” truth environment where issues and risks could be discussed openly without hidden agendas clouding the situation;
  • Documented and agreed upon outcome priorities and success criteria, clearly summarized in 100 words or less (rather than embedded throughout an 85 page “strategic plan.”) These would have to be signed off by all major stakeholders including senior managers, customers and representative end users of the outcomes;
  • Skills in the team, with experience in the business or technology area required to produce the desired outcome(s);
  • Enthusiastic “change champions”, at a 15:1 ratio to those affected by the changes brought about by the initiative;
  • The ability to produce outcomes every 90 days to ensure the requirements and results do not become “stale or outdated” over time;
  • The ability to reassess all of the above conditions every 45-60 days to ensure the “guarantee” would remain in place.

Maybe I am painting a picture of “leadership heaven” here…but I can say this: whenever I am asked to deliver an outcome, I usually work on establishing these criteria before I reach for the computer and launch an initiative. And when I can get a reasonable picture of these criteria– the organizational outcomes are consistently good.

And if your organization cannot meet all of the criteria, you can have a meaningful conversation with your manager about the risks your activities will bear – and you just might get a few more things to get you closer to a “work guarantee” situation.

So what conditions have I missed that prevent us from issuing a “work guarantee”? I look forward to your thoughts!

Intelligent Disobedience Leadership provides workshops, coaching and consulting with a focus on courageous leadership. We can help you and your teams establish and leverage a community of practice in intelligent disobedience to achieve better outcomes. For further information, email us at 

Low Hanging Fruit

We have all said it to ourselves, often many times. It would be easier if I just fixed __________. (fill in the blank as you see fit). Things would be easier if we just standardised or worked on getting _______ right. (Go ahead, you know you have an answer for that blank too!)

As we talk with clients across the globe we often hear the phrase “we have picked all of the low hanging fruit.” Additional savings it seems can only be found through more pervasive and difficult change initiatives. Our common response to this claim is, “I doubt it – let’s see if we can find some opportunities.” Although these larger change initiatives can result in positive results, it is rare that we don’t find savings in those “nagging business process improvements” that can be easily identified by organizational leaders and their team members.

Sometimes it is fixing a neglected estimation process (have you established a habit to go back and check your actual cost and time consumed against the original estimates?). In other instances it is establishing a quick, concise review process to consider suspending or cancelling initiatives that have drifted from their original purpose or have outlasted their useful life in some manner.

It is rare that additional savings can not be found; and in this pressure filled economic environment every advantage should be sought to balance budgets, increase profits or decrease costs.

Are you struggling with budget pressures?

We can help you find or fix the hidden (sometimes) fruit in your leadership models, processes and delivery processes.

Intelligent Disobedience Leadership team members have been involved in helping people improve organizational outcomes for over 20 years. Our consulting services include assistance in the planning, transition and execution of enhance leadership improvement programs leveraging intelligent disobedience. For details, email us at