Good, Cheap and Fast

Why your boss expects all three and why that shouldn’t make you panic

For those of you who haven’t heard of the “time/cost/quality triangle”, it’s a simple illustration of a common rule in project management. Once you understand it, you’ll see that it’s really a fundamental law of human nature, applicable to all jobs and even life itself. Mastering this principle and understanding the dynamics behind it can be particularly useful to those new to project management or the world of work.

It goes like this — the project has a set of requirements (the scope). To complete any project you have three fundamental variables to play with — Cost (how much you spend), Time (how much time you take), and Quality (how good the final product is). In the real world one or more of these variables will be fixed — you will usually have a deadline, a budget, and/or a minimum quality threshold. If these constraints prove to be unrealistic, then you must reduce the scope (requirements) of the project until you have something you can actually deliver.


Figuring out how best to make these tradeoffs is the essence of what a project manager does. If there is a fixed deadline (time) then the quality of the project delivered will depend on the cost or resources available. Similarly if there’s a fixed budget then the quality will depend on how long you want to spend on the project. Though this tradeoff may be obvious, in reality it’s never that simple. Everyone in charge of a project is under constant pressure to pull off a miracle — complete all the requirements to a high level of quality, under budget and deliver it yesterday.

So why do managers seem oblivious to this tradeoff? Are they sadists or psychopaths? In short, no (though many are). What we’re dealing with is called in Economics the principle-agent problem. All this means is that the principle (the boss) is trying to motivate the agent (his employee) to act in the boss’s best interests. However human nature dictates that sometimes the agent will act in their own interests, even if their actions are in direct conflict with what their boss wants. We all do this to one degree or another — from wasting time reading blog posts (thanks, please stick around!) to making exceptions for a friend, or even something as big as stabbing your boss in the back to become next in line for the throne.

This problem, like most economic problems, is a problem of limited information and conflicting incentives. The boss has limited information about what you spend your time doing, whether it’s of good quality, what you’re capable of and what you’re doing wrong. Although the boss mostly is forced to trust you, they are incentivised to set up a system where alarm bells are triggered when something goes wrong and they need to step in. Your incentive is to over promise and under deliver — if you say that boring report will take you all morning, you can spend 2 hours doing that and spend the rest of the time working on your (unapproved) pet project or chatting on Instant Messenger.

Even absent of any maliciousness, procrastination or laziness, we’re predictably terrible at judging our own ability to do tasks. Even experts surprise themselves at how easy a task they were dreading was, and sometimes ‘easy’ tasks have you staying late into the night. Then there’s Parkinson’s Law — “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. Give someone a day to complete a report, it’ll take them a day. Ask them to turn it around in an hour, and miraculously it’ll appear an hour later. Again, this isn’t just maliciousness or laziness — we often just work better under pressure and constraints can force us to not waste time on otherwise inconsequential elements of a task (powerpoint animations, excel table formatting, features nobody wants to use, etc).

Knowing all this (and assuming a lack of sadism), your manager is really heavily incentivised to keep you under pressure by giving you less budget and less time than you need, whilst still demanding that everything is completed to a high quality. If they do this they either get:

a) A brilliant project completed before the deadline and under budget, making you both look good and giving you a sense of accomplishment
b) A project that fails by one or more variable, giving them valuable data on where things need to improve, and what is realistically achievable in future.

It’s kind of like flooding leaky pipes to see where the leak is, or that episode of House MD (i.e. every episode) where he makes the patient sicker to flare up the underlying symptoms so he can diagnose what’s really wrong.

Despite what you might think they rarely have time to figure out even 10% of what you’re doing on a day-to-day basis, so the alternative, ignoring their own budgetary requirements, is that they just trust you and leave you to it.

c) You have all the time and money you need to get the job done to a level of quality that you define. You deliver the perfect project and there is much rejoicing.
Wake up. This is never going to happen.

Even the CEO has these time/cost/quality limitations, they’re just a fact of life. The problem is that this is a kind of unspoken rule that nobody ever explains. Unfortunately many workers, particularly those new to the work force, don’t realise the dynamics at play and many people’s first (and second, and third…) instinct is to say yes to everything so as to please everyone. I still struggle with it myself despite understanding enough to write a blog post (an admittedly low bar). The important thing, if you’re struggling with this, is to remember:

In a world of imperfect information, predictability and trust is everything, and it has to be earned.

If you’re worried that a project has unrealistic expectations, that you don’t have the time or training necessary to complete it or that it won’t be delivered to a good quality, then say so as soon as possible. Though in the short term you’re creating a headache for your manager, in the long-term they’ll thank you. It’s better to divert more resources or have time to find a better way of doing things than to hear the day before a project’s deadline that it won’t possibly be done on time or that it’s gone 20% over budget. Typically these constraints are really more of a guideline than a hard and fast rule anyway— by raising (genuine) concerns you will often find that some of these barriers were artificial or not relevant and can be ignored.

As long as you are repeatedly honest when you come to people with concerns, they’ll eventually learn to trust your opinion. Even better if you come bearing solutions. Their dealings with you will become satisfyingly predictable — when they look at their nightmare stack of work they’ll be grateful for the small mercy that they know for a fact that they don’t have to worry about the work they assigned to you — you’ll have it done on time for them because you said you would and you always live up to your word.

A man* is only as good as his word.

Because of the added trust you get a bit more breathing space to manage your work at a (relatively) comfortable level. Now you can do favours for people, learn new skills or help out on your manager’s pet project. Once enough people start to trust your opinion, you’ll start getting pulled into high-level meetings to have your say. This is where real business gets done — through trust and relationship building. It’s not important to be the smartest, the most productive, or the most innovative. The people that go the furthest are the most dependable.

Contact me on Twitter with any questions / feedback @2michaeltaylor