When I asked a sample of my blog readers and podcast listeners whether being on-scope, on-schedule or on-budget defined project success, it was an exercise designed to understand personal biases. Understanding individual and team tendencies are important. However, as we have discussed, the choice of a single attribute without context is just an intellectual exercise. All projects work to find a balance between all three attributes based on their specific business needs and context.
In well-run projects, decisions are not made in a vacuum. The balancing act between the scope, budget and schedule are fraught with difficulties. For example, I recently talked to a friend who as working on a project that included a feature promised to a major customer for their holiday season. The team determined that they were not going to make the delivery date unless some of the project scope is jettisoned (adding more team was not an option at that point). In this case decisions about scope, budget and schedule exceed the product owner’s decision-making authority, even though she was a senior leader. Any solution would affect marketing and sales plans, revenue projections and potentially earning reports. Many voices had to be heard before a path forward was found. All three attributes had to be manipulated to find a solution. In this case scope was deferred, release dates shifted and additional budget provided. It was not a perfect solution, but it was feasible and focusing on a single attribute would have resulted in more problems. The size and importance of any project will affect how large a circle needs to be involved in decisions if the balance of on-scope, on-schedule and on-budget get out of balance.
Some potential combinations of scope, budget and schedule are impossible. As Fred Brooks observed, adding people to a late project will just make it later. When impossible teams are asked to deliver a with impossible constraints they will invariably cut corners, make mistakes, incur technical debt or flat out ignore one of the levers (and then ask for forgiveness).
There is a classic project saying, “on-time, on-budget, or on-scope, pick one.” It has been said that good project managers can deliver two of the three and everyone struggles with delivering all three. Real life projects represent a compromise between all three components. When time is critical, the team might cut the scope or pursue additional resources. On-scope, on-budget and on-schedule can be thought of as three dials with customer and management satisfaction providing feedback. Project teams constantly adjust each dial to elicit positive feedback and to deliver the maximum value possible.