I remember sitting at my desk at BlackBerry when my co-worker Andrew excitedly returned to work with a big smile on his face. He had been on a Six Sigma training course, and it was totally blowing his mind. I was 22, and a complete sponge for everything in the corporate world, so I eagerly listened as he explained the newest thing he was learning. I only remember it as the “good, fast, cheap circles” but it was, in fact, the Project Management Triangle. At that time, our department was being pressured in all directions; we were getting more and more work, we hadn’t gotten the promotions we were demanding, and there was a major re-org happening. This model seemed like the magic phrasing we needed to push back on the unreasonable demands being placed upon us.
Now, 15 years later, I still think back on this moment with excitement, but I also have a skepticism that I didn’t have in my corporate days. Now I question old paradigms and try to refresh these models so they work in reality, not just in a textbook.
Let me explain the old model, then I’ll tell you about my fresh take on it.
It looks something like this:
The instructions were that you could pick two of the three constraints and deliver your products or services accordingly. So, if you decided to choose a good service for a low price, it would be slow. If you wanted to be fast and good, it would be expensive. If you wanted it cheap and fast, you would sacrifice quality. It was said to be impossible to deliver all three.
For a long time I believed this without questioning it, but as I continued to use it in my business I started to see that, in fact, these were not realistic choices. It was rarely an option to deliver bad work, you couldn’t keep a client waiting forever to receive something, and I certainly didn’t want to be undervaluing my work by charging in this way.
Yet, I still find these three constraints extremely helpful as a starting place for looking critically at your work. The problem, as I see it, is it’s never as black and white as this diagram makes it seem. Nothing is either the extreme end of “fast or slow”, “good or bad”, “expensive or cheap”. I choose to see these constraints more as levers or spectrums to adjust until you find what works for you.
Something like this instead:
In this model we can look at each constraint individually, but we can also see how they impact each other. When one changes, they all adjust accordingly.
Let me explain.
This could be the product itself, or the service you provide. It’s what you include in your packages (or what you leave out). You could deliver the minimum the client needs to succeed, which could be the best possible thing for them because it’s clear and specific. You could also deliver all sorts of bells and whistles which could increase the value, or sometimes, actually make it less useable. You also get to decide how fancy it is, your attention to detail, the professionalism, and overall user experience.
This could mean your response time, how quickly you deliver a result, or how much lead time you need before a project begins. However, it could also mean that there are just-in-time resources available to your customer so they can access them when they need them without waiting. Even a short waitlist could feel fast to a client who has struggled to get help elsewhere.
This could be cheap or expensive, but it could also mean efficient or simplified. We could also reframe “cheap” as “affordable” when you compare it to others in your industry. Perhaps you want your product to feel like luxury, so you would price accordingly. You may have different levels of pricing. Pricing is also interpreted in context to your peers, the culture you deliver in, and the result the customer gets. It is extremely subjective, as are all of these constraints.
How to Use This
I propose that we look at each constraint as an experiment by asking questions and seeing what creative solutions you can see.
What would happen if I lowered or raised my prices?
How would that impact the other two factors?
What would happen if I included more in my services?
Would that make it better or just confusing?
Would that make it more expensive or just more valuable?
Play around with different combinations and see what works for you. You may have a different combination for each of your products or services, or you may have a blanket combo for everything. There is no right answer!
You can use this as you look at your business model, a new product or service you’re considering, in your hiring process, or really in many decisions you’re trying to make.
What this model is missing
Because this was designed with corporations in mind, there’s no soul in it. What’s missing is a discussion of values and of energy. You may find that a combination that makes perfect sense on paper just isn’t aligned with your personal or company values. You may also find that the energetic cost of a certain combination just isn’t worth the payoff.
This is why when I work with my clients we start with a look at their values and desires, no matter what, because whatever decision they make moving forward needs to align with those. Full stop.
Your expectations of others
You can also use this model to better understand what expectations you’re putting on other people. This could be in someone you hire, a task you outsource, or just something in your personal life. You can look at their proposed combination and see if it aligns with your expectations. You may notice that your expectations are too high or unrealistic, and you may also be pleasantly surprised if they exceed your expectations.
Looking at the things I do in my business, we can explore blogging and coaching as examples.
Blogging: I aim for the deliverable to be high quality and extremely valuable. The cost is monetarily free but it’s a high investment in time to read it and even more to implement. The speed is whatever I can manage (usually weekly and consistent, but life happens sometimes).
Coaching: The deliverable is lean, meaning only what is needed is included so my clients don’t get overwhelmed or distracted. The speed in this case would be response time (which I would say is reasonable but never immediate) and also wait time (which is also reasonable since I don’t have a waitlist but my weeks fill up quickly). The cost is affordable, though most coaches would consider it extremely cheap I see it as accessible and fair.
I’m not obligated to keep my constraints where they are right now, and neither are you. You’re free to play with them, adjust, and find a place that suits your needs in your business at any given time. Have fun with it and see what magic you can create!
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