In an ideal project world, only three constraints are imposed on a
project – cost, scope, and time. And if we balance all three correctly, our
project will be a success. If only project management were really that simple.

In the real world of business, project success is often determined by a
skewed focus on just one constraint: cost. Over the past six or seven years of
economic downturn, cost has been the overriding factor for many projects. Scope
and time have been the areas where compromise has been necessary to keep the
costs within budget.

So if the overriding pressure on a project is to stay within budget, how
does that affect what should be a balanced approach? Can a project that is seen
as successful only if the costs are tightly controlled — regardless of how
this affects what the customer actually wants and when they get it — truly be
successful?

When senior management continually focuses on tightening the budget and measures
the status of a project by how much money has been spent, the project team will
focus all its energies and ideas on saving money. This could be an opportunity
for innovation. After all, there are often different, more economical, ways to
achieve the same end. But it is equally likely to result in cutting corners and
a poor quality outcome. Any pride the team may take in its achievements will
soon dissipate if good work is valued less than keeping costs down. This can
have a knock-on effect on the motivation within the team. And an unmotivated
team, working under intense financial scrutiny, simply can’t produce the best outcome.

So in organisations that have spent the last few years driving for
budgetary restraint and measuring individual or team progress only with this
yardstick, senior management should not be surprised that projects are not up
to scratch. Their project managers and teams are probably not implementing good
project management practises or even following the organisation’s PM
methodology.

Financial data is often so much easier to measure and scrutinise than,
say, adherence to the original business requirements — particularly since the
requirements are likely to have changed and evolved over the course of the
project and there is an inherent acceptance that project requirements can, and
do, change. For this reason, it’s easy to focus only on costs over a long
period of time before the true effects of this approach are revealed.

Of course, that is not to say that focusing on only one of the three
standard constraints of a project is the wrong approach for all projects. But always
emphasising costs can lead to a culture of inferior work with a lack of regard
for deadlines. There are times on individual projects when it is perfectly
reasonable, from a business perspective, to focus much more on one constraint.
For instance, a new product that must reach the marketplace within a certain
timeframe to gain a competitive advantage will have to focus on the timescale
to the possible detriment of cost and scope, but the advantages of this
approach for a single project outweigh the disadvantages. It is the long-term
effects of such an approach that are worrying.

The question, then, is this: How do you persuade senior management that
focusing only on cost is not only detrimental to a single project but will
encourage a culture where scope and time are not valued parts of the project whole,
where project teams can become demotivated, and where, ultimately, projects
will not be successful or fit-for-purpose even though they have stayed within
budget?

This is not an easy thing to do. Let me know of you have had success
with your powers of persuasion during the current economic climate and managed
to deliver projects where scope and time – as well as quality — have not been
neglected in favour of keeping costs down.