Some of our greatest achievements are realized through the willingness of people to strive for what seems to be impossible – without this will, we likely would not have reached the moon or split the atom. But constraints are one of the most important elements of a project – they are the gatekeepers on what is and is not possible.
So what happens when decision makers insist on trying to deliver fixed scope with unrealistically low timelines and resources? A common outcome is that something gives – either scope is only partially delivered, quality suffers or schedule and cost baselines are exceeded. What’s interesting is that when such project overruns are analyzed, many times we see that the final actuals are in fact fairly close to what the initial estimates were.
Is this a self-fulfilling prophecy on the part of team members? Sometimes it can be – if the team is not convinced that their objective is achievable, there’s a good chance that they will fail.
But in many instances, it is caused by the analogy I’ve used in this article’s title – like a spring, a project can be compressed. But after a certain point, sufficient linear restoring force has built up that the spring will return (usually violently!) to its original size.
But let’s not ignore the reality that a project needs constraints. Without these, it consumes resources indefinitely without delivering proportional value. Like a spring, you can stretch a project to a defined extent, but once elastic potential energy has exceeded the spring’s design, it will either snap or be permanently deformed.
As project managers, one of our responsibilities is to facilitate appropriate decision making. If your attempts to convey the impossibility of a requested project scenario are falling on deaf ears, leverage the power of analogy, and illustrate your concerns by using a toy spring.