The Call of Constraints

In which we explore the oft-misunderstood concept of work specificity

“Fast, good, cheap—pick two.” Chances are you’ve heard this phrase used to describe the challenge of working with a client or customer on a project. We especially apply this concept of constraints when telling clients, “You can’t have everything, so pick your priorities.” Unfortunately, instead of driving a productive discussion, it’s a brush-off concept that can sabotage you by getting you to commit to “less-good” work and thus tarnishing your brand. Of course, a skillful planner—and anyone who’s put together a kid’s birthday party—knows that he or she can organize great, inexpensive work with aggressive timing; it just takes some creative execution and a willingness to think carefully about what needs to get done. So, has FGCP2 been misleading us all this time? The fundamental problem is that FGCP2 doesn’t describe the actual constraints of accomplishing work and managing change.

Let’s plan a party. We hire a good event planner and provide a date (soon), our budget (low), and a description of the kind of party we want to have (awesome). Our planner works on some smart options for us, finds a great venue and books it. We’ve now satisfied FGC and have not had to P2. 

So, what happens if we try to move the date a week earlier? Our venue has a rebooking fee, so there’s no option to just change the date and keep everything else the same. By changing one constraint, we are required to change at least one of the other constraints. Our event planner gives us some options:

  • Pay the rebooking fee for our current venue (change cost, keep quality)
  • Have a less awesome party in a different venue (keep cost, change quality)

Option #2 sounds very subjective and not especially realistic as a business communication. That’s because “quality” really isn’t one of the constraints at all. We just use it as shorthand for how flexible we’re willing to be with “work specificity,” or the exact details of project execution. Are we willing to change to a different venue that is available on the date we want (and might totally meet our needs), or do we need to stay at this one? The real Option #2 is:

  • Have a different party (keep cost, change specifics)

That’s the key distinction. FGCP2 is actually “fast, specific, cheap—pick two,” which sounds a lot less cool but is way more accurate. In the world of project management, this dynamic between timing, budget, and work specificity is called the “Triple Constraint” or the “Iron Triangle”—and it must always be respected.