"As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble."
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Project Management Triangle

Project Management Triangle


The classic trilemma of project management that balances the variables of Time, Cost and Scope in the delivery of projects.

A mental model that is incredibly popular in agencies and consulting firms is the Project Management Triangle, the so called ‘Iron Triangle’ of production.

This is also a hugely polarizing concept.

At its essence, this model represents a positive trilemma, with three sought after favorable options, however only two can be achieved at any time at the expense of the other.

Traditionally this was applied to the variables of Time, Cost and Scope, with the latter often interchanged with a similar variable - for example Quality, Product, Goal or Deliverable (Quality tends to be the most utilized).

The trilemma also tends to be expressed as a Venn diagram.    

In this example, there are three possible scenarios.

Firstly, if you want the task completed fast and at a high quality, the result is an increase in expense. The provider will need to add more bodies, utilize more senior or experienced staff who may have higher utilization rates, and potentially preference the work over other clients.

Second, if you want the task completed fast and at a low cost, the result needs to be an expectation of reduced quality. Less senior people will be involved, corners will be cut, and executions won’t be as polished.

Lastly, if you want the task to be high quality and be completed cheaply, the result is an extension of the timeline. Other normal paid projects will need to be focused on by the service provider - they are after all ultimately in the business of making money.

Using the Model

The Project Management Triangle is a great tool to teach the necessity of tradeoffs, especially in a service business. Where it can create headaches is when it is used figuratively with a client - it tends to go from managing expectations around problems to creating them.

Put simply, it can feel hugely patronizing for the client if somebody brings this up (I’ve witnessed Junior staff trying to explain this to owners of extremely successful large businesses - not a smart move).

From a business owners perspective, you should be able to apply feedback loops and compound learnings over time to mitigate the extent of the tradeoffs. Processes developed over time can lead to fast, quality work, and reduce costs on subsequent applications.

Understanding Pressures

Managing projects can be stressful. Where the PM Triangle can work best is reminding both service providers and organizations that they are both suffering from similar pressures.

Agencies and Consultancies need to realize that stakeholders have their own complexity dealing with internal management, and so use this model to help subtly highlight potential problems so solutions can be driven through.

On the reverse, organizations need to remember that agencies are themselves a business. They have their own pressures to be profitable and manage competing relationships, so there needs to be some give and take.

Together, the Project Management Triangle can hopefully lead to a better long term relationships.

Author's note, all frameworks are inherently flawed, so apply them wisely. The utility of a framework is always dependent on the individual problem at hand.

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