Skilled project managers are needed in virtually every industry, as illustrated by the increasingly positive job outlook for the field. In fact, it’s estimated an additional 22 million project management jobs will be added to the workforce by 2027—a nearly 33 percent growth for the industry.
With this in mind, it’s safe to assume that many professionals may be tasked with project management duties—even those who may not officially work in a project management capacity.
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If you find yourself needing to perform project management tasks despite a lack of formal training, you can still see your project through to successful completion. It will just take focus, dedication, and a willingness to learn on the fly.
Of course, managing your first project will not come without challenges. Project managers are specifically trained to deal with certain key constraints that impact the timeline, budget, and overall outcome of every project. You’re almost guaranteed to face these yourself, but without the benefit of formal training.
Below, we explain what a project constraint is, how they impact projects, and outline the six most common constraints you should be aware of. We also offer expert advice for avoiding or resolving common problems associated with each so you can be more effective in your role as a de facto project manager.
What Is a Project Constraint?
In general, the term project constraint refers to the limitations and risks associated with a particular endeavor. Every project will have its own set of constraints that will ultimately impact its success or failure.
Identifying and understanding the constraints you may face is a key part of the project planning process, and ultimately informs how you proceed. Project managers are trained, in part, to understand these constraints and to craft a plan that fits within those constraints.
Even if you’re not a certified project manager, getting familiar with the common project constraints can help you successfully see a project through to the end. Additionally, practicing thorough project planning techniques can help you develop the project management skills you need to become more effective in your role.
The Triple Constraint
“Without a doubt, the most common constraints in project management are what the profession refers to as the triple constraint,” says Christopher Bolick, assistant teaching professor in the Master of Science in Project Management program at Northeastern University. “The triple constraint has traditionally been understood as the three primary factors that constrain a project: scope, cost, and time.”
When it comes to executing any project, you will have a specific budget (the cost constraint), you will need to have it completed by a certain date (the time constraint), and you will need to know exactly what the project will include (the scope constraint).
Other Project Constraints to Consider
While the triple constraint is the most common set of pressures you will encounter when overseeing a project, having a limited view of constraints is insufficient, considering the complexities project managers face.
“Instead of focusing only on the three, it is best to approach constraints in project management as variables that integrate with the project in different ways throughout the project lifecycle,” Bolick says. “A few additional constraints are often associated with quality, customer satisfaction, and resources, all of which may have just as much impact on a project as the traditional triple constraints.”
6 Common Project Management Constraints
Here’s a look at the most common project management constraints that may impact your project outcomes. We start first with the triple constraint, before broadening to discuss the others listed above.
“The scope constraint refers to not only what the project includes, but also what is excluded,” Bolick explains.
Thoroughly evaluating the scope of a project before it begins is vital to establishing the expectations for your final outcome. To do so, effective project managers start by creating a project scope statement that clearly identifies what will be involved, including both internal and external factors.
For example, when building a house, you might determine the scope of the project includes building a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home of approximately 2,500 heated square feet. It should also be indicated what the scope of work does not include, such as an indoor pool or landscaping.
In most cases, the scope of a project will refer to the specific deliverables that have been agreed upon by key stakeholders and must be delivered in order to close the project. Any deliverables that were not included in the original plan are therefore out of scope.
The time and cost constraints are the most self-explanatory and easily measured project constraints you will need to confront in virtually every project you manage. Cost (or budget) is simply the amount of money that can be invested in a particular activity to achieve the desired outcome.
It is important to estimate the costs associated with the project as accurately as possible before the plan is set in motion. Doing this will allow you to establish a baseline to which you can compare your spending throughout the course of the project and monitor your progress.
Time is another key element to a project’s success. After all, what good is a finished product if it is completed long after the expected deadline?
In the early stages of a project, it’s likely that key stakeholders will establish “start no earlier than” and “finish no later than” dates that you will need to adhere to. The project timeline will be important to the outcome, as failing to stay on schedule could result in the failure of the project as a whole.
Having a well-defined project plan is one of the most crucial strategies for effective time management. Be sure to dedicate time to planning upfront in order to minimize the number of adjustments needed down the line and reduce the amount of time spent on unnecessary activities.
The quality constraint focuses on the characteristics of the deliverable or product. In general, the quality of the project will be evaluated by how closely the outcome matches the expectations set in the planning stages.
Returning to the previous house building example, the scope of work includes building a 2,500 square foot home with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. However, the quality requirements of the project can refer to the building materials that will be used, such as brick versus vinyl siding or carpet versus hand-scraped hardwood flooring. Defining quality requirements helps to further identify previously defined scope items, avoiding potential rework, sunk costs, and wasted productivity.
5. Customer Satisfaction
Another constraint to bear in mind is customer satisfaction, Bolick notes.
“When thinking about customer satisfaction as a constraint, project managers need to keep in mind that simply delivering a project on time, within budget and scope does not mean the customer will be satisfied.”
In some cases, you may not have a proper “customer,” but you will still need to satisfy the needs of your key stakeholders. Ultimately, you should be asking yourself whether the project achieves the overarching business or customer goal. The earlier you begin looking for clues to answer that question, the better you will be able to deliver a product, service, or deliverable that meets customer or stakeholder needs.
Finally, project managers should take the availability of resources, both material and human, into consideration.
This constraint is typically associated with cost, as the amount of funding for a project usually determines the experience level and the number of resources available. Additional resource constraints also deal with availability and accessibility. Bolick notes, “In today’s global economy, project managers are often asked to lead teams dispersed geographically or across various groups within an organizational setting.”
While the six constraints identified here are not the only constraints that may surface during a project, they cover the basic pressures that new project managers or people with project-oriented roles should understand in order to be effective. In addition to the constraints outlined above, a project may also face constraints associated with risk, technology, sponsor commitment, organizational objectives, or economic conditions.
How to Avoid the Effects of Project Constraints
Failing to execute a project within various constraints can be detrimental to the overall success of your work. There are steps you can take, however, to avoid or minimize the effects that these constraints have on your project.
1. Understand the constraints.
Any constraint that surfaces during a project should be fully understood before it can be addressed. To understand a constraint, project managers and their teams need to identify which aspects of the project will be affected by asking questions like who, what, when, where, why, and how much.
Then, the project manager can utilize various tools and techniques to get the project back on track, such as performing risk analysis, cause and effect analysis, resource leveling techniques, and communicating with key stakeholders.
2. Educate key stakeholders.
As important as it is to understand the constraints yourself, it’s also crucial to communicate with your sponsors, customers, and key stakeholders, to educate them as much as possible.
Bolick says, “It is critical that the customer not only understands what is included in the scope but more importantly what is not included, the quality of the materials being used, and the availability of resources. Expectations and assumptions are project killers if they are not adequately discussed.”
To illustrate this point, consider the house building example once more. Bolick explains, ”If the customer decides to change the scope of the project by adding an indoor pool, we will definitely expect the cost of the project to increase, and we will most likely expect the time required to complete the project to increase. We should also expect the pool to use additional resources, pose new risks, as well as have quality requirements. If we fall behind schedule by too far, we may increase the cost of the project, bring in resources, or we may decide to alter the scope of the work to reduce the time required to complete the project so that the project does not cost as much.”
From this example, it’s clear to see why it is so important to manage the expectations of clients and stakeholders. A key part of this communication will rely on educating your stakeholders about the constraints governing the project.
3. View constraints in a positive light.
One of the assumptions that new project managers tend to make is that project constraints are limitations or restrictions to their work. However, while they can pose risks to a project, constraints don’t necessarily need to be negative.
“I think by the very nature of the word constraint, project managers think of the term as having a negative connotation,” Bolick says. “Instead, to help mitigate risks that may be associated with these constraints, we need to think more of the guiding principles for each constraint.”
Instead of thinking about project constraints as limitations or as something to be battled against, it can help to adjust your thinking. By viewing project constraints as guides that can help you achieve success in the long run, you can gain a healthier relationship with both the profession and the projects that you are charged with overseeing.
Project management is a demanding yet fulfilling career. Explore our Master of Science in Project Management program page today, and learn about the variety of project management methodologies, practical tactics, and skills you can gain exposure to with an advanced degree from Northeastern.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in October 2019. It has since been updated for thoroughness and accuracy.