The ‘Third Rail’ of Project Management: Cutting Quality | TechWell

The ‘Third Rail’ of Project Management: Cutting Quality

Third rail of a train track

Projects are defined by three questions:

  1. What do you want? (Scope/quality)
  2. When do you want it? (Schedule)
  3. What are you willing to invest to get it? (Resources)

Scope, schedule, and resources: Whether you’re using agile or more traditional project management approaches, this “triple constraint” is the law of the project universe.

We can explore trading one side of the triangle to improve the other two—and sometimes people come up with clever approaches that are less work, saving time and resources to accomplish a goal—but most of us have to live within this iron triangle.

If you want to accelerate the schedule, you need to reduce scope or throw additional resources at the problem.

If you want to get by with fewer resource (people, facilities, materials, equipment, or money), you can extend the schedule or reduce scope.

The unmentionable “third rail” of project management trade-offs is the quality aspect of scope. We’ve all seen quality compromised to deal with limited resources or an aggressive schedule— as Jerry Weinberg said, “If quality doesn’t matter, any schedule can be met”—but people pretend it isn’t happening, and we don’t talk about it.

I still encounter otherwise sane adults who fail to understand, or admit, that their projects are bound by these universal constraints.

A recent marketing call reminded me of this. I teach a three-day project management class designed to prepare senior team members and junior project managers for the big leagues. It provides a solid skill set for defining, planning, and managing projects.

I received an inquiry asking whether I could cover the same content in 16 hours rather than 24. The potential client’s concern was the amount of time staff would be in training. The client said that their inexperienced project managers were having challenges and it would be hard for them to take three days away.

So let’s move right past the irony of “Our projects are having trouble because of a lack of staff skills, so we can’t make time to get them training to obtain the skills that would help them avoid the trouble,” and focus on the implication of the scope question: “We want you to accomplish what you currently do in 24 (jam-packed) hours of training in 16 hours.”

To be candid, if I knew how to accomplish the same goal in two-thirds of the time, I would have made those changes long ago.

I suggested the client send someone to one of my classes so that we could discuss what they would like to omit. I was encouraged when they did, but then the question was repeated: “Can we cut this from three days to two without sacrificing content or quality?”

My answer was a polite, “No. I don’t know how to do that.” I’m pretty sure I will lose the business to someone from another dimension who will tell them, “Yes, we can do that. We can compress the whole class into 30 minutes if you like!”

I’m not that desperate—or dishonest.

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