Six Project Management Constraints
Published in Project Management.
Project Constraints are limiting factors for your project that can affect quality, delivery, and overall project success.
The project manager leads the project team to meet the project’s objectives and stakeholders’ expectations. It is in Project Manager’s responsibility to manage constraints and balance competing project constraints influence with the available resources.
We will discuss types of Project Constraints, ways to identify and document them and, finally, how they influence projects.
Types of Project Constraints
Some say there are as many as 19 project constraints to consider, including resources, methodology, and customer satisfaction. These are worth planning for depending on your organizational structure and processes, but we will cover the six most common project constraints likely to influence nearly every project.
We will also discuss how these constraints are interrelated, how to manage them separately and together, and how to balance all constraints with your eye on overall project success.
Quality is one of six major constraints of every project, as depicted in the classic triple constraint triangle, which also includes scope, time, and cost:
Quality sits slightly apart from the other three project constraints appearing inside the triangle because any change to the other three usually influences it. At the same time, changing quality expectations will most certainly affect the project’s time, scope, and cost.
Most importantly, all project constraints within the classic triangle are interrelated, so a strain on one will affect one or more of the others. Here’s a quality project constraint example:
- If you are unable to meet a sudden rise in cost, the project scope may shrink and the quality may decline;
- If the project scope extends due to scope creep, you may not have the time or resources to deliver the promised quality;
- If delivery time is cut or rushed, project costs may rise and quality will very likely decline.
One of the most important stakeholder considerations, project time (how long it will take to deliver), is a vital measure of project success. Your task is to estimate project time as accurately as possible, which requires a blend of research and experience.
If you’re a newer project manager, you’ll rely more heavily on past projects for precedent, and use their data to give you a sense of appropriate scheduling for your project. Look over completed projects’ closing documents and schedules to gain a sense of how long certain work packages typically take. And be sure to study how change orders affect delivery schedules.
If you’re a more experienced project manager, rely on both research and your past performance and wisdom when estimating time ranges—including potential delays, change requests, risks, and uncertainties. Overall, your job is to provide stakeholders with the most accurate range possible to avoid surprises or making unrealistic promises.
Equally important to stakeholders is how much a project will cost. As with time constraints, your budget estimates need to be presented in a range. Some key research will lead you to accurate numbers:
- Estimate costs with thoroughly researched market rates for goods and services you need
- Estimate costs with vendor bids and ranges
- If providing hourly cost estimates, be sure to estimate your time accurately in the first place
- Estimate your budget by considering all costs: labor, material, factory, equipment, administrative, software, contractors, etc.
- Look at costs and budgets for similar past projects inside and outside your organization
- Look carefully at change orders that affected past project budgets
Cost management will be an ongoing project management task. You’ll want to stick very closely to your proposed budget while keeping an open mind about changes that may affect costs.
Since project scope is not an estimate but a guaranteed set of deliverables, it’s difficult to imagine creating a range for this project constraint. However, you can consider that stakeholders may be invested in scope risk and scope tolerance ranges.
For example, you may list a set of deliverables that could be created if budget and schedule allow, a wish list that your stakeholders can choose from if there’s money and time left over after mandatory deliverables are completed.
Likewise, you may indicate which deliverables on the scope can be omitted or cancelled, if time or cost grow too constrained. If, for example, a few must-have deliverables end up consuming too much of your budget, your stakeholders can tell you which of the remaining deliverables they will allow to drop so that time and budget constraints can still be met.
The projected benefits of any project should be spelt out in a business case during the very early stages of project planning. To put it simply, a project’s value must be determined early and fully agreed upon before launch. Therefore, your business case should articulate the project’s justification and what set of measures will be used to assess its benefits to the organization.
Determining a project’s benefits will most likely have to take place a set period after completion, since the impact will need to be measured over time. However, if those benefits disappear or fall below a certain threshold during the project, work should be suspended until further evaluation.
Any number of changes in conditions may also suddenly alter a project’s foreseen benefits. For example, if the cost of construction materials suddenly skyrockets, the benefits of completing a small structure may be completely obliterated. Or, the anticipated rise in sales due to a new marketing campaign may be wiped out if a major supplier goes out of stock.
A project’s benefits are never completely isolated from other factors. The constraints you must continually consider are how a single project’s benefits measure against losses, changes, damages, or rising costs. You should determine at the start of a project what the benefits threshold will be, and what conditions will warrant project cancellation, scaling down, delay, or partial completion.
We usually think of threats—what might go wrong when we plan for risks. A project manager must be able to reasonably foresee failures at every step of a project and prepare for them accordingly. This can involve playing out what-if scenarios and formulating contingency plans:
- What if a supplier fails to deliver?
- What if we lose any number of resources due to illness or transfer?
- What if the market takes a huge swing?
- What if our competitor launches a similar product at the same time?
When managing risks as a constraint, you must find the zone of risk tolerance in your organization and stakeholders, which means determining a tolerable range of responses within appropriate limits. For example, if a supplier fails, you will seek out another within X price, Y delivery time, and Z quality. By establishing a zone of tolerance, your stakeholders will be able to determine how much risk they are willing to take on to reap the proposed benefits of the project.
Often, you’ll need to operate within the risk tolerance policy of your company. This policy dictates how much risk the company is ready to take with its projects. In other cases, you may deduct the level of risk tolerance from the company’s size and startup status.
Another way to look at risk is through the unexpected opportunities that may arise. Seizing a new opportunity will naturally involve risk, so it is helpful to show your stakeholders scenarios and determine their window of tolerance on this end of the spectrum as well. If, say, an opportunity arises to capture a larger market share, will stakeholders be willing to raise their investment amount? What would be the limits of their increase?
These are other constraints mentioned in PMBOK Guide 6th edition:
- Legal and regulatory requirements and/or constraints. These include confidentiality of project information;
- Contracting and purchasing constraints;
- Schedule constraints;
- Resource constraints;
- Cost constraints;
- Funding constraints;
- Date constraints;
- Regulatory constraints;
- Procurement constraints.
How to identify Project Constraints
In PMBOK guide 6th edition, there is a process of Assumption and Constraint analysis. Every project and its project management plan are conceived and developed based on a set of assumptions and within a series of constraints. These are often already incorporated in the scope baseline and project estimates. Assumption and Constraint analysis explores the validity of assumptions and constraints to determine which pose a risk to the project. Threats may be identified from the inaccuracy, instability, inconsistency, or incompleteness of assumptions. Constraints may give rise to opportunities through removing or relaxing a limiting factor that affects the execution of a project or process.
You can use Stakeholder Interviews to obtain information on high-level requirements, assumptions or constraints, approval criteria, and other information from stakeholders by talking directly to them.
How to document Project Constraints
Business Case identifies high-level strategic and operational assumptions and constraints before the project is initiated, which later will flow into the Project Charter. Lower-level activity and task assumptions are generated throughout the project such as defining technical specifications, estimates, the schedule, risks, etc.
Project Managers use the Assumption Log to record all assumptions and constraints throughout the project life cycle. Use this document to add new assumptions and constraints, update the status of existing assumptions and constraints or close them out.
The preparation of a detailed Project Scope Statement builds upon the major deliverables, assumptions, and constraints that are documented during project initiation. During project planning, the project scope is defined and described with greater specificity as more information about the project is known. Existing risks, assumptions, and constraints are analyzed for completeness and added or updated as necessary.
How Project Constraints influence the Project outcomes
Project Constraints are a part of Project Specific Data along with WBS, activities, resources, durations, dependencies, calendars, milestones lags, etc.
Tool selection should be based on the needs of the project stakeholders including organizational and environmental considerations and/or constraints. Tools should support the following configuration management activities.
Sequence Activities is the process of identifying and documenting relationships among the project activities. The key benefit of this process is that it defines the logical sequence of work to obtain the greatest efficiency given all project constraints.
Estimating activity durations uses information from the scope of work, required resource types or skill levels, estimated resource quantities, and resource calendars. Less important factors that may influence the duration estimates include constraints imposed on the duration, effort involved, or type of resources (e.g. fixed duration, fixed effort or work, a fixed number of resources), as well as the schedule network analysis technique used.
Developing Schedule is the process of analyzing activity sequences, durations, resource requirements, and schedule constraints to create a schedule model for project execution and monitoring and controlling. This process generates a schedule model with planned dates for completing project activities and is performed throughout the project.
Critical path method uses project constraints to calculate early and late start and finish dates for project activities. These factors include activity durations, logical relationships, leads, lags, and other known constraints.
The type, amount, and extent of Project Tests needed to evaluate each requirement are part of the project quality plan and depend on the nature of the project, time, budget, and other constraints.
Project constraints influence Decision Making, Resource Procurement, budgeting and is used in fixed-budget procurement method.
Proceeding with caution and courage
No project can be planned or managed down to every single possibility. But you can, within reason, work well within your given limitations to bring about as much predictability as possible. The key is remembering what your project constraints are, how they impact each other, and when they indicate a course change is necessary.
Projects constantly change and evolve, requiring a balance of preparation and responsiveness.