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What is the project management triangle and how does it work?

In a perfect world scenario, project managers have unlimited time, all the resources they need, and the scope of the project never changes. However, in the real world, nothing could be further from the truth. Every project, small or big, has constraints, and it's the project managers job to deliver quality projects within these limitations.


Most common constraints PMs have when starting the new project include time, cost, and scope. Together they make what we call project management triangle.


This article will help you understand the project management triangle better, overview its challenges, and let you know how can you use it for delivering quality projects.

What is the project management triangle?  

You might come across the same model with a different name, such as the iron triangle, project triangle, or triple constraint. These names indicate just how important this model is and how helpful can it be for the project managers. It is not a new concept either; Managers have been using the triple constraints model for a long time. However, despite its age, it remains to be one of the most vital parts of project management till today.  

The project management triangle

The three constraints of the iron triangle

  • Time constraint. Every project has a deadline. The time constraint refers to the pressure to deliver the project within the set and agreed schedule. It also includes all major milestones, for example, completion of each project phase, time of releases and the date of the final product delivery.  
  • Cost constraint. It limits the expenses of the project. The project budget comprises all the financial resources the team has to complete the project on time, including all the functionalities and specifications determined by the scope of the project. 
  • Scope constraint. The scope of the project defines specific goals, functions, features, deliverables, and all the tasks that are needed to complete the project as intended. It clarifies what the outcome should be like after completion of the project within the set time and budget.  

The three angles of the project management are interdependent. One cannot change the scope of the project, delivery time, or the cost of it, without it affecting the other two.

  • If you increase the scope of the project, for example, by adding the new functionalities cost and time will change as well. You will need to increase the budget and change the deadline. 
  • Similarly, if you cut the budget of the project, you will have to compromise some of the functionalities and decrease the scope or extend the delivery deadline. 
  • In case the deadline is shorter than what the project needs, and is non-negotiable, you will have to decrease the scope or increase the budget.  

To understand the project management triangle better and see how are they connected, let's break down each of the angles.  

A closer look at three angles of the project management triangle  

1. Time 

Before the project starts, the project manager together with the development team estimates the time of completion for each task. By adding these tasks together and considering the interdependent and related work, the project manager sets the timeline of the project. After the client agrees on the deadline, the development team is ought to deliver the project on time. (if of course, the client does not make any changes in the scope or price).  


However, every project manager knows that often, not everything goes as planned. Here are some of the most common time-related challenges that the project manager might face. Knowing them will help you mitigate such risks before they even arise.   -

Underestimation of time

Sometimes the team is too optimistic when estimating the time needed for completion of tasks. As a result, amid project development, it gets clear that there is a low chance of meeting deadline. It results in constant delays and puts stress on the team, as well as the client.  


Hence, it is wise to consider each team members' abilities and workload to create a schedule that reflects reality. At the same time, take a look at the similar projects your company has completed before and use past experiences.   -

Internal delays

The correct estimation is not the solution to all time-related issues. If your project has the logic of dependencies and team members have to sit around doing nothing, while the other team completes their tasks, you are spending money and time. While working on such projects, you need to create such a timeline than considers dependencies. Have constant communication between team members, so everyone is aware of the current situation to reduce internal delays.

Staffing issues

When the team is understaffed and not enough skilled people are working on the project, delays are inevitable. Project managers can resolve minor staffing issues more easily by prioritizing and moving tasks around. In more critical situations, they can even outsource fraction of the project, or temporarily recruit developers for the job. However, if the team lacks professionals with the key skill sets, the project can be significantly delayed. It is why it is so important to plan the project and form the team based on the scope and client's requirements.  


Project delays will negatively affect the relationship with the client and as a result, can damage the company's reputation. Changes in time can affect the other two parts of the project management triangle and have an impact on the project quality. To avoid it, project managers should use time management and prioritization technique:  

  • Carefully learn the project specifications.  
  • Identify and define all activities that should occur during project development. 
  • Establish correct sequence considering the dependencies and priorities.  
  • Use the data of the previous projects to avoid overestimation.  
  • Estimate the required resources 
  • Estimate time for completion of each task. 
  • Track how is the project following the initial plan and make necessary changes.  
2. Cost  

Going over the project's budget might be a nightmare for project managers. But sometimes it is impossible to avoid. How carefully PMs might decompose and plan the project the cost might still change.  


While often they cannot control changes in cost, the best way to deal with it is to plan and try to prevent any possible exceeds in the budget. 


Cost underestimation 

Cost underestimation happens when the initial estimates are too optimistic, don't include possible inefficiencies and when there are mistakes in the budget.


Project delays

When the team does not meet the project deadline, you can always expect changes in the budget. The budget should account for the additional salaries and other possible costs that arise. If the delay is significant, there might even be fines to pay for it, if indicated in the initial contract.  

Staffing issues 

As mentioned above, project managers can mitigate some of the staffing issues by moving the tasks around. However, if the team has to outsource or hire an outside contractor, they also have to spend more money. Such situations arise, when there is a lack of skilled members in the team or when the tasks are not assigned properly. As a result, some of the tasks have to be redone by more experienced members. Again, it results in exceeding the agreed budget.


The best way to deal with the changes in the cost is to prevent it from happening by thorough planning and estimating. Project managers can minimize overruns by adding the contingency budget into the plan. They should check if the budget follows the initial estimates and make necessary changes if something does not go according to it.


3. Scope 

Changes in scope can sometimes set the whole project upside down as it greatly affects the time and budget.  

Additional feature requests 

Request for an additional issue can come both externally and internally.  

  • Often when the project is ongoing, the client comes with the request to add one or more features that would make their software just so much better. 
  • Or, your team member can see that by adding the specific feature, the software can work faster, be more responsive or deal with the requests better. 

If the additional feature does not require a lot of work, does not change the dependencies and you cannot accommodate it within the set timeline and budget, it is not a big problem. By implementing it, you can make the final product more valuable. If not, you need to be firm and make how adding it will affect the time and cost. 


Changing specifications 

Sometimes the client does not have a clear understanding of what kind of software they want to develop, simply because they do not have technical knowledge. Throughout the project development, they might re-evaluate their needs and come up with the suggestion to change some of the specifications so, that the software accommodates their needs better. Needless to say, will affect the budget and schedule of the project.


Best way to avoid it is to document all requirements and specifications and communicate it openly with the client and the team. All parties that are involved in the project should sign the documentation that defines the deliverables, specifications and other details regarding the project.


If the client still requests changes, you can enact a change control process for those changes that affect the budget and time.   -

Obscure requirements  

Even when the project requirements are detailed and written, a lot of issues might arise. Imagine what can happen if they are ambiguous and open from interpretation. To avoid such complications, project managers need to have detailed requirement analysis and do a precise project decomposition.  

The bottom line

Project management triangle is a give-and-take balance that is the core of delivering a quality project that is beneficial and valuable for the client and the development company.  


The iron triangle helps project managers understand the limits of the project and guides them into the daily decision-making process. It is also a good reminder that the project cannot meet all the expectations, be cheap and be developed quickly. The key is to balance all three components and while doing so, deliver the maximum quality.  


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