On Triangles, Constraints & Decisions

Give me simple, direct and blunt over over-complicated

Richard McLean
Mar 2 · 4 min read

A couple of weeks ago, I was learning a bit about how 9 charities are working together in a consortium. Working across 9 organisations is not easy, yet the potential benefits are great— from pooling resources, to information sharing, and quality (if not speed) of decision making through diversity of thought.

I was reminded of this proverb, which I once used in a presentation I had to give to an interview panel at the beginning of a job interview:

An image of people walking/climbing up a path together, with the text “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”
An image of people walking/climbing up a path together, with the text “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”
taken from: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/784963410021662938/

I didn’t get the job.

And I’ve no idea if it’s actually an African proverb (as at least three other people have tried to establish).

But I still believe in the idea and the choice it represents.

Around the same time — and thanks to Stefan Czerniawski and Janet Hughes — I was also reminded of this triangle about the implementation of change, from Chris Yapp. Often, people would like change to happen now, everywhere and by agreement — but that’s not possible.

Choices have to be made about which of those three elements/corners to prioritise, and those choices constrain — and are constrained by — choices about the means to use in making the change. There are trade offs you have to make.

That is, people want all three corners of the triangle, but you must choose just two and then work the sides — eg whether you impose the change through rules, or pilot it with experiments or consult on the change through discussions.

That got me thinking about other trade offs, and other triangles I’ve seen. The one I’m most familiar with relates to constraints you face when managing a project. When I was first learning about project management (nearly 15 years ago…), this was always illustrated as a triangle of time, cost, and quality:

source = https://www.stakeholdermap.com/project-management/project-triangle.html

Over time, people then wanted to add in scope, but that forth consideration/ dimension/constraint/angle (whatever you want to call it) doesn’t fit the triangle visual, so people found ways to fudge it.

For instance, in Prince2 (the bible for many a project manager) it looks like this:

source = https://www.prince2.com/uk/blog/project-triangle-constraints

However, many variations of the project triangle with four dimensions exist:

And over time it seems to have got more and more complicated.

It went from this:

To this:

And it seems that as people wanted to add in more dimensions, they couldn’t agree on what should make the cut and be included in the four dimensions — for example:


People then got creative on how to illustrate four dimensions in order to sneak in more concepts. Like this:


And this:

source = https://www.theprojectmanagementblueprint.com/blog/project-overview/scope-and-the-triple-contraints-of-quality-time-cost

For some people, however, four dimensions simply weren’t enough, and they were feeling brazen, so they said “to hell with the constraint of using just one triangle for illustrating all of our constraints” and used new a shape instead, the “double triangle”:

from: https://www.smartsheet.com/triple-constraint-triangle-theory

By now, we’re a long way from the simplicity of “pick one of these two options” (the ‘African’ proverb where I started), or “pick two from three” (the Chris Yapp traingle about change), and for me the message is lost in these more complicated versions.

I prefer simplicity and direct bluntness, with this being my favourite presentation of the choices we face (eg when ordering pizza):


Although people seem to have enjoyed making even that more complicated:

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