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We're sure most of you have heard about the three variables that control a project...time, cost and scope. We refer to them as the corners of The Titanium Triangle. What does titanium have to with this?
Titanium is a very hard yet comparatively light metal. The triangle created by time, cost and scope also tends to be very hard or rigid while being taken far too lightly. Let us explain. We're going to focus this discussion on software development and deployment projects because that's what we know best.
Projects fail when managers can't manage!
Many projects fail right out of the starting gate because time, cost and scope are ALL inflexible. You have The Titanium Triangle. Project and Program Managers, we'll call them Team managers, have little decision making leeway. They can't spend more money. They can't take more time. They can't cut back scope. What's left?
Take a guess! They can cut corners on quality, reliability, scalability and robustness. These are intangibles that won't become apparent until the project is completed and perhaps not until several months after completion.
The intangibles are not a variable!
Obviously, sacrificing quality is a very bad idea but it happens all the time. It happens because people without a direct connection to the project team view the effort too lightly. They break into camps more concerned about their favorite subject area, cost (financial folks), time (marketing and sales folks) and scope (user community and system designers).
Each camp takes a very different though equally simple view of the project and digs in. Time cannot be changed. Cost cannot be exceeded. Scope must be delivered as requested or it's all for nothing. The Team Managers are powerless, relegated to making simple tactical decisions that will inevitably result in failure.
Teams need some latitude.
At least one of the triangle's corners needs to have some latitude. Preferably, all three should show varying degrees of freedom so that optimal business decisions can be made by the team along the way. But, how do you satisfy the stakeholders, financial types, sales and marketing folks, the user community and the system designers? They are such a varied group!
Let's start with time. The team should have frequent timed deliverables. These act as check points and provide tangible evidence of progress. The end date, ie. final delivery, should have some "wiggle room". Perhaps you can schedule delivery two weeks before the infamous "drop dead date" leaving time to catch up if needed.
Those frequent deliverables also provide an early warning indicator of scheduling trouble. Never assume the team will make up lost time. It does not happen. If they fall behind you must explore extending the schedule, increasing the budget and/or reducing the scope.
But wait! There are other options available.
Cost is equally important. There are two key points here. Firstly, try to set up a targeted cost range rather than a fixed cost amount. Alternately, you might establish a "not-to-exceed" figure where the target cost is 5-10% below that number.
Secondly, don't break down the cost into too many buckets. For example, $5,000 for tools, $8,000 for equipment, etc. Give the Team Managers some leeway to move money around as long as they don't exceed the overall target. Those frequent deliverables will also gauge how you're doing against the expected cost of producing them.
The last triangle corner is scope, ie. features and functions. These items must be prioritized as in essential, important, useful. However, don't think that the team can start at the top of the list and work their way down. It's never that simple.
The team will need to group scope items into iterative deliverables. The particulars of the groupings depend on many factors too complex to discuss here. The project plan must show that upon final delivery all the critical features make it, most (80%+) of the important ones do too, and some (perhaps 60%-70%) of the useful items get in.
If too many scope items don't make it to the finish line, the plan was poor from the outset. Scope is not about "wish lists". It's about setting goals and objectives then doing your best to accomplish them.
A little flexibility can go a long way!
Small projects can get by with just a little "wiggle room". Allowing adjustment in only one corner of The Titanium Triangle may be sufficient. Very large projects need flexibility in all three corners and perhaps lots of it.
Variables such as the experience of the team, the maturity of the underlying technologies and the level of innovation in the solution can have a major impact on time and cost.
Your projects have much improved probabilities of success if you let the Team Managers manage, not just execute within a Titanium Triangle.
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You can read more about creating an effective process by reading our article called "You Need A Winning Process!".
Occasionally, someone will try to make the case that time, cost and scope have to be rigidly controlled. "I have a hard deadline, a fixed budget and a feature set I absolutely have to deliver."
That's a lovely Titanium Triangle!
Sometimes, reality strikes and there truly is very little, if any, flexibility in what needs to happen and when. If you're caught in this situation, define early, tangible goals.
Perhaps you can implement a few key features quickly to show what can and cannot be done. Or, maybe a quick, in-depth assessment of the situation can surface the major issues and give the management team an opportunity to deal with them early on.
Whatever you decide to do, always...Explore. Plan. Execute. Verify. Quickly and repeatedly!
The idea is to root out problem areas as early as possible. This will give the management team and the project team time to make adjustments and manage expectations.