One of the distinguishing characteristics of project work is that we are usually expected to deliver value in uncertain conditions while facing multiple constraints. While it is important for a team to understand the external constraints they have and to define realistic plans based on those, it is also advisable that they have an idea of the relative priority of these constraints before making delivery commitments.

A typical sponsor or customer might tell you that all constraints are equally important to them, there is always one or at most two which will trump the others. If the team doesn’t take the effort to dig deep with stakeholders to understand the relative priority of constraints, they will be missing a valuable input for their analysis when an issue crops up which makes it impossible to achieve all of a project’s objectives.

For example, if we have an issue which will affect cost, schedule and quality, without understanding which of these three is more important than the others, we may come up with a recommendation which won’t result in a successful project.

And rarely do we find that all of our stakeholders will align on this relative ranking, especially with discretionary projects. Finance departments are likely to prioritize revenue and cost whereas business or product owners might emphasize timely delivery, scope or customer satisfaction. Achieving alignment between the key stakeholders might be difficult in the early stages of a project, but it is better than having those conversations when things have gone wrong and there is time sensitivity on making a good decision on how to proceed.

Even though there are many possible constraints for most projects, I wanted to get some feedback from practitioners on which of the most common ones were the highest priority on their most recent projects.

While the project management iron triangle might represent the best known set of constraints, for the majority of the projects I’ve been involved with, stakeholder satisfaction was the primary constraint.

I ran a one week poll in PMI’s Project, Program and Portfolio Management discussion group on LinkedIn and within the ProjectManagement.com community . I received a total of 128 responses with 30% support for stakeholder satisfaction, 28% for time, 26% for scope or quality and only 16% for cost. A few respondents provided comments explaining their voting choice, but no additional constraints were provided as a primary choice by these practitioners.

Although stakeholder satisfaction doesn’t surprise me given my past experience, I would have expected cost to trump time or scope. This is what I’ve witnessed on many public sector projects where budgets are fixed, but there might be willingness to delay a milestone or reduce scope if that means staying within budget.

Now you know. And knowing is half the battle.” – G.I. Joe

(If you liked this article, why not read my book Easy in Theory, Difficult in Practice which contains 100 other lessons on project leadership? It’s available on Amazon.com  and on Amazon.ca  as well as a number of other online book stores).

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