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Project management

Forget the iron triangle. Here’s what you should use instead. 6 min read
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Ahh, the good ole iron triangle. A classic in the project management world, the iron triangle is comprised of three constraints: scope, time and cost. It’s lived on for years, with little adjustment.

But times have changed.  Customer needs change at lightning speed. Teams must be more agile to respond to these needs. And leaders need to let teams figure out how to reach their goals faster – without bottlenecks. 

A stiff triangle doesn’t fit with how we work today.

We need the project management triangle to evolve into something new: the agile triangle, which takes into account the value delivered, first.

How has this newer project management triangle evolved? And how can you maximize it in your workflow? Let’s start with a little background, and work from there.

What is the iron triangle?

There are tons of theories on how to manage projects well. One of the most popular is the iron triangle.

The iron triangle defines each of its axes as constraints: scope, budget, and deadlines:  

Project management scope – In project management, the scope is essentially a list of all features and associated work you need to complete in order to deliver the end product. In an iron triangle, scope is generally listed at the top of the triangle. That’s because the scope is often easiest to define. 

You know what you want to achieve when you begin a project, and how the end product should look. At least in theory. Once you get started, as we all know, project demands can change, or we discover necessary components we missed in our original assessment.

Project management time – Determining the time a project will take to complete is actually super complicated. First of all, there are often many deliverables that together combined form the final product. 

For example, if you’re developing new software you need to program the back-end with data feed systems, filter functionalities, and automated alerts. Plus, you need a team to work on the front-end for top-notch UI and UX. At the same time, your business development team may be out in the field working on pre-sales or finding beta testers. In other words, time management means calculating the sum total of the duration of all these activities together, while of course taking into account the elements of each that can overlap to form a viable schedule. 

Project management cost – And finally, we’ve got cost.  Your physical facilities, labor hours, and even legal fees need to be accounted for here. You then need to set a detailed budget accordingly. Often project management software is useful for surmounting this rather tedious, and technical task.

Keep in mind, while you can adjust the constraints as you go, each adjustment will affect the others. The triangle, after all, needs to remain geometrically proportionate in order to work. So for example, if you want to do the project faster, you will need to spend more money on labor. If you want to add to the scope, such as a new feature in that inventory management platform, you will need to add both labor and money. Otherwise the central objective – a quality product – is lost.

But does the iron triangle really fit today’s workplace? 

Agility rules the business roost

As we’ve stated before, agility is one of the most important characteristics of successful organizations today. 

With constantly changing customer needs and wants, shifting environments, and rapid technological change, many organizations are struggling to keep pace. Add to that the need to make decisions rapidly – without bureaucracy – and create new products and services than ever before, and you’ve got a mess on your hands. 

The answer to cleaning up this mess?

Improve agility. Agility – a combination of flexibility and speed of response – helps organizations move faster and in alignment. What began as a way of working for software developers, agile is becoming a mandate for many organizations.

So how do we adopt the iron triangle to be suited for this new reality?

The agile triangle advantage

The concept of the old-school iron triangle has come into question over time. 

Many project managers see the iron triangle as too constrictive and focused on scope and not impact. For instance, a programmer working on software should be focused on releasing the product – not adjusting dimensions on a triangle to get the rigid angles right. 

That’s why many companies now use the “agile triangle” instead.

Pioneered by Jim Highsmith, this model again, lists a three-way relationship that must work together towards successful project completion. In the agile triangle, instead of scope at the top of the triangle, you have value and impact. At the bottom corners of the triangle, you have quality and constraints (instead of cost, time and scope).  

This is actually a big deal.  Because value really is, at the end of the day, the goal of any project. We’re not simply completing projects for the fun of it.  We want to make an impact and deliver projects with actual value for users and customers. 

So, instead of altering our work against metrics like pre-defined scope, we focus on value to the customer or user. 

If your programmer finds a way to add more value to the software, with an extra feature or version fix, she should be encouraged to do so. Especially if your clients are going to love it.

Which project management style is right for you?

There is no right or wrong answer as to which project management style is right for you, and whether the agile triangle will work for your team. Though as we’ve mentioned, agility and delivered value are increasingly taking center stage.

And while a platform like Work OS can help you manage your project – whether you’re an iron or agile triangle subscriber –  agility is a good value to remember in any case.

If you remain agile at heart – and are able to pivot quickly to maximize impact, you can move forward and get better results. 

Want to use a visual Work OS that’s as nimble as you need it to be? Try out our project management templates. 

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