Can a Project Manager really control any of the three PM Variables?

pmjuggleEvery project manager knows the three variables in a project are:  Schedule, Budget, and Scope (often referred to as Quality). There is an old maxim in the project management field that a project manager can give up control of two of these variables and still be successful as long as she controls one of them. 

For instance if the scope and budget parameters are totally unrealistic but the project manager can control the schedule of the project, the completion date of the project can be manipulated to meet the other parameters. Similarly, one of the other variables can be controlled in such a way to meet the objective of the project.

An often heard complaint of project managers is that they cannot control any of the variables and as such as forced to make do the best they can with unrealistic constraints on budget, schedule, and scope. Consequently, they are often the ‘whipping boy’ for management when projects go awry.

This begs the question; can project managers that are not in enlightened organizations ever hope to truly achieve parity between their responsibility and authority for project outcomes? I think so. The trick is to work with the variable that has the most flexibility from management’s perspective.

How does a project manager determine which variable has most flexibility? I suggest the problem is not very difficult, rather that project managers haven’t been taught to think in this manner. Let us consider the main project types:

1)      Legal Mandate

2)      Market Mandate

3)      Internal Directive

Legal Mandate – When an organization is confronted with a government mandate to change the way it is doing business, typically, the scope and schedule are pre-determined by the government. Consequently, the project manager’s main task is to determine realistic costs as soon as possible and make management aware of the necessary costs as early on the planning process as possible.  It is highly unlikely that a well researched cost estimate will be brushed aside by management in this situation as, the organization will either spend the money complying with the government mandate or spend the money fighting legal battles with the government. The decision on battling the government in court has probably been made – i.e. the project would be put on hold if management had decided to fight the government – the budget variable can be controlled by the project manager if he is willing to exercise his authority.

Market Mandate – When an organization is challenged in the marketplace, the determination is more complex. The project manager must determine if the challenge is meeting a request by an influential client – or potential client, or meeting competitive challenges by either catching up to the competition or being first to market. In either scenario, the project manager must engage in an honest dialogue with management as to what the priorities are in this particular case. With a specific client, the priorities may be scope and time related, in which case the project manager must aggressively determine budget needs. If the issue is meeting or beating the competition to market with a particular product of product enhancement, budget and schedule may be of most importance to management, and the project manager will need to determine exactly which functionality is necessary to meet the initial goals of the project and control scope by encouraging management to incorporate ‘nice to have’ functionality in future releases of the product.

Internal Directives – In many cases where projects initiated internally due to political or perceived competitive advantages, the budget and schedule are pre-determined before the project manager is engaged. In these scenarios, the most likely variable the project manager will be able to control is scope. The most important factor to be determined is what results are of the highest priority to management, then determine what the budget and schedule can realistically deliver and present a case to management to incorporate the items of less priority in future enhancements.

As always successful project management is defined as delivering the right product, at the anticipated cost, when it is expected. If a project manager can establish criteria that can be realistically achieved at the beginning of the project the probability of success is enhanced considerably.

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