Break the Iron Triangle

Defeat the tyranny of time, cost and quality.

Project managers know that to ensure they come in on time and on budget, they must respect the iron triangle. These are the three inextricably linked elements of any project of Time, Cost and Quality. If you want something done better, faster, or cheaper, you have to trade these elements off against each other. Want better seats for that new Broadway show?


Then you can either pay more, or wait until prices come down. In other words, you can get higher quality in the same time for a higher price, or better quality at the same price at a later time. But you cannot have all three. Participants work through a tangible example in teams to discover the innovation methods that allow great innovators to crack this timeless dilemma. Competing teams represent a home buyer, architect team and contractor.


The specifications are laid out. A certain number of rooms and footage and finishes, designed and built in 6 months. 


During design, however, what if the buyer decides they need another bathroom? What are their options?


Same house faster – more money

Is there no alternative? What if the designer and contractor changed some of the unstated assumptions? For example, what if the most expensive elements of the home were not built from scratch?

&prefab house.png

HOW CAN YOU BUILD A BETTER HOUSE, AT A LOWER COST, AND IN LESS TIME?Students learn that by altering unquestioned assumptions, in this case by combining prefabricated housing modules, they can deliver higher quality (larger house, more bathrooms, better fixtures) faster and even at lower cost. Of course it changes some aspects of the project, such as the particular design attributes of “quality”. But these might be preferred by the end user. You deny them that option by lack of imagination. Teams now turn to an example of a current or prospective project in their own work. They map out the current understanding of time, cost and quality. Then they work through a structured exercise to test each element. How would you do it faster? How could you do it cheaper? Often, to prompt real breakthroughs, we have to make the demands extreme. What would need to be true to do it in half the time? How could you do it at zero cost? How could you deploy it globally in the same timeframe?

Reverse-engineer from the future.

Methods of “design thinking” are introduced—really the classical methods of industrial design— to help participants practice “reverse-engineering from the future”. This counter-intuitive approach requires them to “stand in the future” to solve this stretch goal. Depict the future you are challenged to create. Then step back and say what would need to be true to make it possible. Teams produce the options and begin to combine them for different combinations of time, cost and quality, until they arrive at the best alternative. These are challenged by the class and instructors in a final plenary presentation for feedback and enhancements.

Imagination cracks the iron triangle.

The debrief concludes with an action plan for participants to take these methods back into their work, to reinforce that these methods apply to every project, every day. You just have to ask harder questions. And start in the future to back into the present options.