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  • Writer's pictureBill Holmes

It's Time to Revive The Triple Constraints!

“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” Confucius

“Simplicity is a great virtue, but it requires hard work to achieve it and education to appreciate it. And to make matters worse: complexity sells better.” Edsger W. Dijkstra

There is beauty in simplicity.

There is the nail. There is the hammer. You hit the nail with the hammer. Easy to understand, easy to use and completely adequate for most projects.

There is a place for expensive gas or air driven hammers, but most people have the simple hammer in their toolbox.

Sometimes you just need a hammer.

Here is the project management equivalent of the hammer:

Simple, clear and easy to understand. I earned my PMP in 2008 and I recall how this simple picture of the triple constraints helped me to understand a wide variety of project management concepts such as the project baseline, change control and configuration management. It also clarified the interplay between cost, scope and schedule.

I also remember the critiques of the chart. It is too simple. It leaves out staffing. What about procurements? And on and on. Project management “academics” love to point out the flaws of the triple constraints, and in fact there are articles where the inaccuracies of the chart were mathematically proven! Always moving toward complexity for complexity sake.

Which misses the point.

It was not intended to be a single picture that captured the complexity of all projects. It was intended to make the point that you must agree to the work you are doing, how long it is going to take and what it will cost! If you want more stuff done, it will probably take longer or cost more.

It was a simple and effective picture that helped inexperienced project managers grasp key concepts.

But it was more that that! It also allowed a project manager to communicate key concepts to supervisors who have no background in project management! I wrote a series of articles on “non-project executives” here: www.projectmanagementforum.net.

When you read the PMBOK®, it describes the perfect project. Which it should! However, it should be remembered that projects are worked in the real world. They are supervised by executives who have no idea what it takes to deliver a project. There is a need for simple tools to assist a project manager in bridging that gap.

We should return the Triple Constraints to the Project Managers toolbox.

Everyone needs a hammer.


The tendency to move toward complexity is problem and in my opinion adds huge amounts of overhead to what should be routine day to day activities. We teach the Pareto Principle for certification tests and then reject it in practice. We teach that there is a difference between "quality" and "grade", then demand that we use the best grade available regardless of the quality standards. How many times have you seen a simple presentation about a simple issue become bloated and difficult to follow as it "made better" by intervening layers of management? Or a simple process get "enhanced" to the point that it is now unusable? More to follow on this.


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