Should we ban the term “constraint”?

The term constraint ought to be banned when teaching modern project management.

To clarify, there’s nothing wrong with establishing targets or acknowledging the relationship between key project variables such as scope, time, resources, cost or quality – it’s strictly the misuse of the word constraint that offends me.

A constraint represents a “hard” limit on one’s ability to extend one of these variables.  Unfortunately, there are extremely few cases where this is practically true. Don’t get me wrong – there are some projects where one or more variables are absolutely limited – Y2K remediation projects are an obvious example of a valid time constraint.

In most cases, when I’ve asked clients what tends to be the limiting factors for their projects, they might initially indicate schedule, cost or resources but when pushed, their project customers can tolerate some schedule slippage, some budget overruns or they are able to free up resources at the eleventh hour.

It might sound like I am nitpicking over semantics, but the impacts of blind adherence to constraints can be dire.  If a project manager believes that scope is a “hard” constraint, this may cause the project team to ignore change opportunities that could reduce risk, stress on the project team or increase the probability of project success.

This is not an invitation to ignore the relationships between the variables entirely – if we do, then we are as guilty as those customers that demand fast, good & cheap without something “giving”.  A PM should never assume that a project is as constrained as it appears to be – negotiation is a critical, but often overlooked, soft skill.

Categories: Project Management | Tags: | 8 Comments

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8 thoughts on “Should we ban the term “constraint”?

  1. James A. Lamb

    Hi, Kiron.

    I get your point, and humbly disagree with your premise.

    While I do agree with your view that the triple constraints of time, budge, and scope are fluid and negotiable, I question the term “target.” If I’m aiming for a target of six months and $1M, then I consider it a success to hit those targets, without consideration for coming in under budget or with time to spare. With target, it seems to be ultimately favorable to hit those discrete numbers.
    Nevertheless, I agree that “constraint” might not be the best term. Whether a matter of semantics or not, it was an excellent article!

    Tony

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    • kbondale

      The term “target” is somewhat optimistic – I guess we’ve got to come up with a new word!

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  2. Kiron,
    You might want to bound your suggestion by a domain. The launch date of a Mars mission is a hard constraint.
    A FFP government contract has a hard constraint on funds.
    A promise to the US Congress for the closure date of Rocky Flats (a DOE site) was a hard constraint.
    The development and testing of an anti-virus drug for the US Army has a hard constraint.
    The “go live” date for 53 SAP sites has a hard constraint.
    Placing 787’s into production has a hard constraint for the buyers of aircraft who need seats in the sky.

    Hard scope must have a change control process. Hard budget must have a change control process.

    When you remove the term constraint, you’ve opened the definition of “done” up to interpretation. A generally bad idea on any project.

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    • kbondale

      Hello Glen –

      As I mentioned early in the article, this is by no means an absolute – certainly there are projects on which constraints are absolute, but I’d wager that the total number of such projects is less than those that have more flexible constraints.

      Thanks as always for the feedback!

      Kiron

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  3. I might suggest that the larger t he project, the more important the project to the stakeholders, the more we see constraints.

    Projects with few constraints have less importance to those same stakeholders. “Get it done when you can.

    Domain and context are critical to any discussion around project management methods.

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  4. James A. Lamb

    Hey, Kiron.

    I noticed you stopped by my blog. If you have suggestions, let me know!

    Tony

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  5. Pingback: Tweets that mention Should we ban the term “constraint”? « Easy in theory, difficult in practice -- Topsy.com

  6. RAMAKRISHNA.KOPPAKA

    Constraint is a term,used by inefficient Project Managers,who look for some excuse or the other to delay a project,though everything goes as per schedule.The fear psychosis ,that there may be a delay ,unexpectedly,make them use this silly word called “constraint”.I wish this word is not allowed in Project Management,at all.

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