What are constraints in project management?
Sadly, we don’t live in that kind of project management utopia. So, project managers must understand and know how to handle the various constraints that plague their projects.
Constraints in project management are all the things that can affect the project’s execution. Whether that’s a tight schedule, a lack of a certain resource, or a clash with a state’s rules and regulations — all of that can constrain a project and present itself as a risk.
In this article, we’ll tackle this topic and explain:
- What project constraints are,
- What the most common types are,
- How project constraints affect each other, and
- How to manage them.
We’ll also provide various project constraint examples and include expert opinions on how to successfully manage them.
Table of Contents
What are project constraints?
According to the PMBOK® Guide (7th edition), a constraint is “a limiting factor that affects the execution of a project, program, portfolio, or process.”
The verb “to constrain” means to limit development or to force something into behaving in a certain way. Therefore, project constraints are limitations imposed on projects that ultimately influence their outcome.
But, these restrictions don’t only affect how the project will turn out. They also influence:
- How the project manager handles the project,
- What they focus the majority of their attention on, and
- What kinds of adjustments they make along the way.
Project managers encounter many constraints across different projects. In general, though, factors such as budget, resources, risks, and similar often represent the major limitations that are at play in any given endeavor.
We recognize 2 main types of project constraints:
- Internal and
Internal constraints are project limitations dictated internally by the project stakeholders, such as the project scope and budget requirements.
In contrast, external constraints are project restrictions imposed by external sources, such as the government’s constricting regulations concerning the design and construction of residential buildings.
What are the triple constraints of project management?
The project management triangle is another name for the triple constraints or the iron triangle of project management. This term applies to a set of 3 most common constraints project managers must keep in mind:
- Time, and
- Cost constraint.
The main idea behind using the iron triangle in project management is that it helps us keep an eye on project quality. Every project is constrained by its budget, scope, and deadline — the 3 main factors that influence its success or failure.
Managing the project triangle is, thus, likened to a balancing act, as changing either one affects the other 2 constraints.
As David O’Brien, PMP-certified founder of TheProjectManagement.Expert, puts it:
“I often describe the triple constraints (time, cost, scope) of a project as an equilateral triangle that must be finely balanced. An adjustment on one of the constraints impacts the others, and they too must be adjusted accordingly.
For example, if the duration (*time*) of a project is shortened, then one or both of the other constraints need to be adjusted. This could mean removing *scope*, or if the scope is fixed and cannot be reduced, then it means that the *cost* must increase in order to bring in additional resources to help deliver the project within the reduced time frame.”
Let’s go through these 3 constraints in more detail.
Constraint #1: Scope
The project scope is an internal constraint that refers to everything we have to do to execute a project.
To define the project scope, project managers use a document called the scope statement of work (SOW). In this document, they list all the minute details about the project, such as:
- Exceptions, and
Since the triple constraints are interconnected, any changes to the scope require adjustments to the time and cost constraints. Otherwise, a noticeable scope creep — a deviation from and expansion of the original scope — may result in various issues, including:
- Missed deadlines,
- Low-quality project execution,
- Working overtime, and
Scope constraints in project management — example
Imagine you work for a construction company. Your next project is to do a 2-story home renovation and add a patio to the home’s backyard.
The original project plan states you have 6 months to complete the reno on a budget of $550,000. However, after reviewing the changes you’ve made, the client decides the patio isn’t enough. They also want to add a pool.
As this is a huge change to the project scope, other project constraints are under threat. As the project manager, you now have to carefully balance the scales to restore order.
In this particular situation, the pool is definitely going to increase the overall project cost, and you’ll need extra resources to make it happen. On top of that, you’ll likely have to extend the project time frame unless the client is willing to pay even more to hire more workforce.
💡 Plaky Pro Tip
Learn more about project scope and get a free template for a project scope statement in the post below:
Constraint #2: Time
Time is of the essence in project management as it directly affects the quality of the project’s execution. When you don’t have enough time to deliver everything outlined in the scope and within the budget — your project is likely to perform poorly.
The time constraint is an internal constraint that generally refers to the project’s duration, or how much time you have to present the project deliverables to the stakeholders.
Since there are so many ways a project can be limited in terms of time, proper time management and project scheduling are essential to ensure this constraint doesn’t jeopardize the project.
One of the ways project managers can keep track of the time constraint is by creating a detailed project timeline. The project timeline offers a visual overview of key project elements, such as:
- Project tasks,
- Task duration,
- Due dates, and
- Task dependencies.
Project managers who want to improve their project time management and create more efficient schedules can also use specific project management methodologies.
The critical path method, for instance, is a project scheduling algorithm that only sees time as a constraint. You can use it to:
- Calculate how much time you have to complete a project, and
- See how much project float you can count on in case you need to extend certain tasks.
Time constraints in project management — example
Imagine your company is redesigning the official website. The new website must include 2 major additional features — a resource page for FAQ and a template library.
The project deadline is 6 months away. This seems ideal at first and gives you ample space to create an achievable schedule.
However, on hearing that a competitor is relaunching their website a month before your company, your boss decides to move up the relaunch. Now, you only have 4 months to complete the project.
Since there’s no time now to finish the whole project scope, you can decide to simplify some design features or perhaps add one of those features at a later date. However, that may change the project’s value proposition — you need those 2 features to stay competitive.
Instead, a better option might be to up the budget and hire more people to work on the project. You could even outsource some of the tasks (e.g., content writing for the FAQ page).
The risk there is that the quality of the resource page might suffer. Either way, it’s up to you to decide which trade-offs are safe to make.
💡 Plaky Pro Tip
Find out more about project time management, its processes, and how to improve it in the guide below:
Constraint #3: Cost
As its name suggests, the cost constraint is an internal constraint that relates to all the money you have to spend to see the project through until the end.
This constraint mainly refers to the project budget — a spending plan that outlines how much money you’ll spend, when, and on what. The project budget consists of various expenses that can either be fixed or variable.
Fixed costs are set in stone and don’t change over time (e.g., the monthly wages of the project team members). In contrast, variable costs are more dynamic and directly linked to the amount of work necessary to complete (e.g., labor and utility expenses).
Making a detailed and accurate project budget is essential to the project’s success, as any unfavorable changes can result in major issues. To combat that, project managers should monitor cost variance throughout the project and regularly compare it with the cost baseline — the approved version of the project budget — to make sure the expenses don’t spiral out of control.
Cost constraints in project management — example
Let’s say your next project is to plan a corporate event for your company — the annual company summit.
Since the budget is limited to $10,000, you do your best to fulfill the CEO’s wishes without going over it. Some compromises must be made to account for the smaller budget. But overall, you’re likely to manage it well.
Then, something wild happens — an influx of new customers due to the company’s TikTok video on company culture going viral brings about unexpected profit. As a result, the CEO decides to allocate $2,000 more for the company summit to celebrate this achievement.
So, with a larger budget, you can expand the scope to make the summit an even grander affair.
For instance, you can schedule additional team-building activities, such as a survivor-like competition. Alternatively, you can use the money to improve the quality of the summit — e.g., by renting out better buses to take the employees to the location.
💡 Plaky Pro Tip
Are you planning a corporate event and want to make sure it all goes smoothly? Plaky’s event planning template simplifies the planning process and helps you stay organized while juggling tasks, expenses, and deadlines:
What are the other constraints of project management?
Although managing the iron triangle is a good start, time has shown that there are other relevant project constraints to consider as well.
Most often, quality, risk, and resources are considered alongside the triple constraints to gain a better understanding of all the factors that impact the project.
The PRINCE2 methodology, however, replaces resources with benefits as one of the 6 aspects of project performance.
Below, we’ve provided an exhaustive list of other constraints to keep in mind while managing your projects:
- Social constraints,
- Economic constraints,
- Legislative constraints,
- Governance and policy, and
- Third-party constraints.
Let’s go through each one to understand how they can affect your projects.
Constraint #4: Quality
The quality constraint can be seen as an extension of the scope constraint. While the scope constraint refers to all project outcomes, the quality constraint is an internal constraint that focuses on their characteristics.
Addressing the quality constraint doesn’t mean we have to add or eliminate project features. Instead, the focus is on ensuring the optimal quality of the project as a whole.
While planning the project, the stakeholders also determine the level of quality they’re after, as well as how they will measure it.
By measuring project quality, we determine whether the project deliverables match our expectations. In other words, we assess the quality of our overall work, not just whether we’ve done all we had to or not.
Quality constraints in project management — example
Imagine that you work for a travel agency looking to print a comprehensive brochure of its services. The project is due in only 2 months, and you have $5,000 to cover the design and the printing.
The brochure should be done in full color on top-quality glossy paper. A major requirement is that the paper shouldn’t get bent when carried around in a bag or rucksack.
Unfortunately, when the brochure prototype arrives, you notice it is indeed too flimsy and bends easily. You made the mistake of going for cheaper paper, which was a risk in itself.
As this is a threat to the quality constraint, the most prudent solution would be to invest a bit more money into better-quality paper. Thus, you might be able to ensure the brochure’s durability and your project’s success.
Constraint #5: Risk
Risk constraints generally refer to any project threats we have to consider. Ideally, the project manager should be able to predict what kinds of risks await in each project phase and know how to handle them properly.
Risk constraints can be both internal and external uncertainties that can affect our projects, depending on their sources.
External risks are often much more difficult to predict because neither the company nor the project manager can control them. Think of extreme weather conditions or COVID-19. You cannot wish away a hurricane or a pandemic, for instance — the only thing you can do is adapt!
On the other hand, internal project risks include anything that comes from inside sources. As such, they’re often easier to mitigate or manage than external risks. An example of this might be the unexpected sick leave of a team member.
Risks aren’t always inherently bad. If they are negative, we call them “threats” — and if they’re positive, we refer to them as “opportunities”.
We cannot expect projects to not have any risks, so it’s vital to determine how much risk we can accept. This determining factor is called risk tolerance — the amount of risk we’re ready to tolerate in our projects.
As explained by Dr. Mike Clayton in his video on risk tolerance, we can represent a risk with a graph that shows the probability of something happening against the impact it can have on our project.
Then, we can draw a risk tolerance line on the graph beyond which we wouldn’t be prepared to accept risk. If a certain risk falls in the zone beyond that line — and there’s nothing we can do to move it out of that zone — the project shouldn’t be carried out.
Risk constraints in project management — example
Imagine you work for a print-on-demand company and are looking to introduce a new collection of products.
For this collection, you’ve chosen a great supplier you’ve worked with before. However, during talks, the supplier tells you they’ve been having trouble with logistics. Indeed, they might experience some procurement issues in the following months.
You want the collection to drop in 2 months, so this news puts a damper on the project. The supplier likely won’t be able to procure key products for your collection, which will have a negative impact on your project.
This puts this risk above the risk tolerance line, urging you to decide whether you’d want to:
- Postpone the project until the supplier sorts out their issues,
- Find an alternative supplier, or
- Cancel the project because you cannot commit more resources to it.
💡 Plaky Pro Tip
Learn how to manage risk and keep your projects on the right track with our risk management guide:
Constraint #6: Resources
The resource constraint is an internal constraint that covers all project resources needed to make the project happen. These resources include things like:
- Materials, and
Resource constraints go hand in hand with procurement constraints since certain procedures must be followed when acquiring each type of resource.
Furthermore, resources cost money, so this constraint is closely linked to the cost constraint too. In other words, if you don’t have the funds to get a particular resource, the project may suffer unless you can make some other adjustments.
But sometimes, it’s not about the money at all, but time. The time constraint also has to be balanced with the resource constraint to ensure proper resource allocation in the project schedule.
The previously mentioned critical path method is a tool for creating a project schedule that only considers time as a constraint. An extension of this method is critical chain project management, a methodology that takes resources into account too and ensures their availability throughout all the project phases.
Resource constraints in project management — example
Let’s say you’re managing the construction of a swimming pool in a 3-star hotel. The client hopes the pool brings the hotel a bit more appeal. That makes the addition a priority — and you have 3 months to finish it.
The construction requires the use of heavy equipment during the first month of construction, so you decide to rent it from a reliable supplier. However, the supplier informs you the machinery is not available. The earliest you can get it is in a month.
Since you cannot construct the pool without the equipment, the resource constraint is under threat.
One option would be to delay the project slightly so that you can use the requested machinery. A better solution, however, would be to always have alternative equipment suppliers on standby or know who to turn to in case you need to quickly rent equipment for a project.
💡 Plaky Pro Tip
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Constraint #7: Benefits
The benefits constraint is an internal constraint the project stakeholders and the company impose on themselves. This constraint represents the value that’s expected to be achieved by successfully completing the project.
The project benefits are outlined in the project business case. The business case contains all the information about the financial and non-financial benefits the project should bring the client — i.e., its value proposition.
Overall, a project’s proposed benefits serve as the basis for why we’re even doing a specific project. If there is no value or the proposed value changes for the worse before the project ends, there is no point in starting or continuing the project.
Much like the risk constraint, the benefits constraint should have an agreed-on limit. If the project’s value drops below this limit, that effectively means:
- You should stop the project, or
- You have to adjust other constraints to reduce the threat to the benefits constraint.
Benefits constraints in project management — example
Imagine that you work for a well-known cosmetics company eager to expand its reach. To achieve that, they want to launch an innovative product. So, your next project is to produce and market a water- and tear-resistant liquid eyeshadow that promises 48-hour wear.
The project’s deadline is a year away, and the project itself requires a hefty investment as you are consulting multiple dermatologists and cosmetics experts to ensure the longevity of the product. So, to make the project worthwhile and ensure good ROI, you need to capture at least 30% of the market.
About 4 months into the project, you hear that your main competitor is also releasing superbly resistant liquid eyeshadows. In fact, they’ll have similar shades too. However, unlike you, their release will happen 2 months before yours.
The benefits constraint is now under threat — there’s a good chance you won’t realize the return needed to make the project worthwhile. So, if you want to save the project, you can invest more money into resources to rush it.
Otherwise, you may want to cancel it because you cannot justify it anymore. The original benefits are no longer achievable.
Constraint #8: Social constraints
Social constraints are external constraints that refer to public opinion of your project.
In a nutshell, these constraints may arise if the project in question becomes the subject of wider public interest. Otherwise, they may be linked to opposition, i.e., when someone is against your project and thus enables public scrutiny.
Publicly funded projects are often problematic in terms of social constraints because they matter to the whole public, not just one client. As such, there’s a greater risk of causing controversy if anything goes wrong.
We can also link social constants to customer satisfaction. In project management, managing this constraint means going beyond delivering the project scope on time and within budget — and actually ensuring the client is completely satisfied in the end.
Once again, quality comes to mind here, as it’s not just about finishing the project by delivering everything you must deliver. The project should also meet all of the client’s needs to ensure their satisfaction.
Social constraints in project management — example
To illustrate social constraints, let’s consider the so-called Battle of Barnes that occurred between a top games-maker King executive and his neighbors.
Nick Pointon and his wife were looking to add a 1,700 ft basement underneath their property. However, soon enough, they learned just how much their neighbors opposed the project.
The neighbors wrote 102 letters to the Richmond Council. In those letters, they explained how the project would affect their livelihood and the whole neighborhood.
Some of the reasons given to the council included one resident’s inability to continue working from home. Another reason for the opposition was that the house wasn’t built on strong enough ground to support a basement addition.
More importantly, it was said that a previous basement addition at another house a few years back caused damage to 3 other properties on that same road.
The battle between Mr. Pointon and the neighbors ended up in the press because the neighbors were actually celebrities.
Constraint #9: Economic constraints
Unfortunately for many project managers out there, the overall economic climate is another external constraint they must consider.
Complications such as recessions and inflation can result in economic constraints that strain the project and make moving forward difficult.
Naturally, economic constraints affect the project cost the most. This, in turn, can affect both the scope and the time you have to complete the project.
As these constraints come from external events, it’s difficult to not just predict but keep track of them.
Economic constraints in project management — example
A good example of an economic constraint is the current rise in inflation across the US and even the rest of the world.
Inflation erodes purchasing power by increasing the cost of goods and services. Other common effects of inflation include higher interest rates, destructive recessions, and more.
In project management, inflation has a huge impact on the overall project costs and cost overruns. As such, it can be a sub-constraint to the cost constraint, in that you have to take it into account when planning the project budget.
Inflation isn’t something the project manager can resolve on their own. However, they can play along with this constraint to ensure it remains tolerable and doesn’t jeopardize the project.
When the inflation rate is high, it’s imperative to maximize your returns. That entails picking the projects that bring the most value.
Some other ways to ensure this constraint doesn’t spell demise for the project is to be more mindful of the project expenses and optimize resource usage.
Above all, it’s necessary to review the project budget to account for the price increases. This should help remove the threat to the cost constraint. That said, it might ultimately reduce the project scope or slow down the project.
Constraint #10: Legislative constraints
Legislative constraints are external constraints the project must be executed within to ensure its legality. For the most part, these constraints include any laws and regulations that concern a particular project.
Getting the right permits or certifications for the project is an example of a legislative constraint. Without these permits, you may not complete the project on time — or at all.
On the other hand, legislative constraints can also concern your employees and your compliance with labor laws, project safety requirements you need to keep in mind, and similar regulations.
Legislative constraints also act as guidelines that determine the very nature of a project. For instance, they can dictate how sustainable and environmentally friendly the project should be by prescribing:
- Which materials you can use,
- How you should handle waste,
- What you can do to preserve the environment throughout the project’s execution,
- How to avoid further pollution, etc.
Complying with these regulations would make it easier for you to take your project to the finish line.
However, avoiding doing so doesn’t only lead to delays, remedial work, or project failure. If an organization fails to comply with legislative constraints, it risks financial penalties, and in some extreme cases, criminal charges.
Legislative constraints in project management — example
Imagine you’re working on a construction project in Phoenix, Arizona.
You must be aware of many rules and regulations throughout your construction project. One of the best examples of construction law issues you have to keep in mind is building codes.
According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, building codes are “laws that set minimum requirements for how structural systems, plumbing, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), natural gas systems, and other aspects of residential and commercial buildings should be designed and constructed.”
In other words, these are rules that must be followed so that the project gets development approval and actually comes about.
Naturally, these codes can vary across states, with some deciding to include additional requirements to address potential issues.
For instance, in states like Florida and Texas, building codes might focus on hurricanes. Those in Alaska and California, however, are more likely to address earthquakes.
So, for this particular project, you have to check Phoenix’s building codes to ensure you’re on the right side of the law and plan out your project accordingly. This would entail finding out:
- How tall the building can be,
- How many stories it can have,
- Which fire and smoke protection features it must have,
- How to plan out the building’s interior environment (room dimensions, ventilation, lighting, and similar), etc.
Violation and failure to comply with them can result in high fines and potential redos that only put an even worse cost, time, and scope strain on the project.
Constraint #11: Security
Security constraints are external constraints that affect our ability to protect sensitive project data. They can also relate to physical security, such as having limited access to certain types of equipment.
These constraints are external because the danger is likely to come outside of the company. However, proper security risk management is an internal requirement as well.
In general, security constraints are those that project managers have to operate within to ensure data and material protection.
To that end, these constraints may require project managers to use a specific type of technology to protect the projects from information security risks.
Internally, it would be necessary to provide guidelines against typical security risks to ensure data remains shared only between those who are directly involved in a certain project.
Security constraints in project management — example
Let’s say you work for a tech company that’s working on releasing its new AI app. As AI is so popular these days, it’s necessary to bring out a safe-to-use, well-made app as soon as possible — or at least before your competitors sniff out what you’re doing.
Throughout the project, you must protect the data and ensure nothing leaks before the release date. Because of that, the security constraint the team is dealing with is pretty high-level.
Not everyone at the company knows what they’re creating, and only those directly involved have access to sensitive information. But even that information isn’t readily available.
Apart from having to show their security passes before going into the office, the project team also has to leave their phones at the security desks before work. Plus, not every team member has access to the same kind of information — e.g., only the project manager and those on their level can see all the data linked to the app.
Since the security constraints are so tedious and elaborate, other constraints are under threat. For instance, not having all the information about the app can lead to general confusion within the project team, which, in turn, can delay the project.
The procurement and maintenance of all the technology needed to keep data safe also put a strain on the cost constraint.
However, if the benefits trump the drawbacks, the project continues, with the project manager carefully adjusting other project constraints to ensure the security constraints are properly managed.
Constraint #12: Governance and policy
Governance and policy constraints are internal constraints that refer to limitations imposed by your own organization. These are the internal rules, regulations, and procedures you must follow while managing your project.
These constraints are directly related to project governance. According to the PMBOK® Guide (7th edition), project governance is “the framework, functions, and processes that guide project management activities in order to create a unique product, service, or result to meet organizational, strategic, and operational goals.”
These constraints are also related to organizational or corporate governance. This is the comprehensive approach to organizational management that ensures the organization accomplishes its goals and is overall successful.
Governance and policy constraints in project management — example
Imagine that you work for an IT company. As a project manager, your job is to complete your projects in accordance with the project governance plan. This plan includes various rules and policies regarding:
- Stakeholder communication,
- Risk management,
- Accountability and responsibilities,
- Reporting and knowledge-sharing,
- Monitoring and controlling, etc.
Nurturing quality communication in project management is essential to project success — and that applies to stakeholder communication too. To ensure proper information distribution, the project governance plan advises you on how and when to communicate with each stakeholder.
Similarly, project governance also includes identifying, categorizing, and prioritizing potential risks and bottlenecks. The stakeholders must agree how they will manage risks before the start of the project.
The whole project governance plan acts as a governance constraint, as you must follow the same procedures throughout each project. Essentially, you must manage projects within this framework as that ensures they remain in line with the company’s overall mission and goals.
💡 Plaky Pro Tip
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Constraint #13: Third-party constraints
Third-party constraints are external constraints every project inevitably depends on. Whether it’s the local government or your competitors, these constraints can have a huge impact on the project’s success.
Generally speaking, third parties may not even have a direct interest in the project but can still wield a dramatic level of influence — even if it’s entirely circumstantial.
Outside contractors are a common example of a third-party constraint that requires proper management throughout the project. For instance, your project may require you to seamlessly integrate outside contractors into your project team. That is a constraint you have to keep in mind and handle throughout the project if you want to get the results you’re after.
Third-party constraints in project management — example
Imagine you work for a small toy company and your next project is to make a teddy bear that’s resistant to dirt and grime. Promising parents they won’t have to wash the teddy bears every week, the teddy bear’s coat should repel dirt and remain free from any stains.
A critical resource constraint you’re dealing with is the material you have to use for the teddy bear’s coat. The company usually procures the materials for its toys, but this time, you have to rely on an outside vendor. Plus, there is only one supplier, and since you cannot use any other material, the success of the project all but depends on this third-party constraint.
As it’s impossible to control external constraints, you also cannot control how much material the supplier will have at their disposal. You agreed to a set quantity, but due to other constraints — an earthquake damaging the supplier’s factory — the supplier runs out of the material.
You were originally hoping for a successful product launch by Christmas, which, at that point, is in 6 months. But the supplier only has enough material for the next month — after that, you’ll have to wait an additional 2 months to get more.
Given that you cannot skimp on the material, you might have to postpone the release and miss out on huge Christmas sales. This would ease the third-party constraint, giving you more time to figure out your supplier issues.
On the other hand, if you skip the Christmas release, there’s a good chance you won’t fulfill the financial expectations of the project and thus falter under the benefits constraint.
💡 Plaky Pro Tip
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How do project constraints affect each other?
The examples we provided above illustrate all the project changes that happen when we modify or remove project constraints. But project constraints don’t only influence project outcomes — they also affect each other.
To demonstrate this, let’s focus on often the most important constraints in a project:
- The triple constraints,
- Resources, and
How the triple constraints affect each other
One of the best examples of how connected constraints can be is the iron triangle. The expert we talked to, Molly Beran, PMP-certified president and founder of Projects By Molly, LLC gave us a fantastic explanation of just how interconnected the triple constraints are:
“The most classic example of how project constraints affect each other is the idea of the triple constraint, which points out the relationship between time (schedule), cost (budget), and scope (work you are going to do). Visualize each of these components as the sides of a triangle. If one side gets bigger (let’s say your boss asks you to tackle another aspect of the project you haven’t planned to include), then you’ve got to increase either or both of the other two sides. The idea is to always keep the triangle closed — if you don’t, you usually jeopardize your project’s quality, resources, or both.”
How project resources affect and are affected by other constraints
In general, we can apply the same notion about the iron triangle to other project constraints too.
Though it may not always seem so obvious, project constraints are often interdependent. This makes it all the more important to cover our bases and take all of them into account when managing a project.
For instance, consider the following situations that could impact project resources:
- Equipment failure poses a threat to your project timeline and may cause significant delays.
- Ordering new equipment is likely to increase project expenses.
- The use of potentially harmful materials may get you in trouble with the law and even cause major public scrutiny.
- Acquiring resources may depend entirely on third parties, which can be a major headache in case of an economic crisis.
Just by considering resources alone, you can recognize how limited you are by the time, cost, legislative, social, third-party, and economic constraints.
Plus, resources themselves are a constraint on their own. If your project requires the use of special equipment or you need your project team to have a particular set of skills — those are restrictions that greatly affect your project and the way you’ll manage it.
How an imbalance in project constraints can affect the project quality
The expert we talked to, Annette Hayes, PMP-certified project management consultant at Grind Vine Consulting, pointed out one of the major concerns regarding project constraints:
“As a certified Project Management Professional PMP®, and long-time practitioner, my clients are expecting quality work — and that’s exactly what I intend on delivering. But project constraints can have a domino effect and compound on one another.”
She further explained what would happen if we decided against adjusting other constraints to bring back balance to the project:
“For example, a stakeholder may shorten a deliverable date, and depending on the resources at hand, the project could now need a bigger budget. However, when one constraint changes and the solution is not to change another constraint, project quality can inadvertently become more relaxed, and the project outcome will suffer.”
Ultimately, all constraints affect the quality constraint, which is, in the grand scheme of things, a bigger problem than, say, an untimely project delivery. Quality is something Annette wouldn’t compromise on:
“Having worked in the field as a project manager for decades, and owning my own project management consulting firms, delivering a project that is suffering in quality is never an option. If a deliverable needs to be changed, then communicating that need to your stakeholder is crucial! Otherwise, it can be damaging to your reputation as a project professional and/or organization.”
Project constraints don’t only affect each other — they are also in constant competition for the project manager’s attention. Ideally, you’d want them all to be in balance, but that’s hardly possible due to how dynamic projects can be.
Managing project constraints ultimately depends on the project manager’s capabilities and prioritization skills. Making the right trade-offs at the right time is a project management skill that can save the project when it seems unsalvageable and restore the balance.
How to manage project constraints
Given how dynamic projects can be, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for dealing with project constraints.
Both problems and opportunities can occur at any time throughout the project life cycle, but as you cannot predict all of them, you cannot rely on just one set of guidelines.
That said, here are some general tips you can apply to any kind of project to keep track of your project constraints:
- Always consider how different constraints affect each other,
- Make adjustments whenever possible,
- Stay flexible and adapt to the changing circumstances,
- Document and track your project constraints,
- Consider if another project’s constraints can affect yours, and
- Follow the best practices to ensure project success.
Tip #1: Always consider how different constraints affect each other
The best thing you can do is to always have in mind what kind of an effect different project constraints can have. As Molly Beran puts it:
“[As for how to manage project constraints], I would say it varies from project to project, but the rule of thumb is to make sure that you are always thinking about the impacts of constraints on each other. This frequently looks like some sort of a change request approval process where someone who wants to change a project makes an official request to a committee or the project manager, and that group then looks at all of the impacts of making that change to scope, schedule, and budget.”
Tip #2: Make adjustments whenever possible
Changing the constraint is often the most diplomatic way to resolve the issue — but it’s not so easy to achieve.
For example, you could ask for an extension if you don’t think you can honor the project timeline. If the client agrees to the extension, that would effectively resolve the current threat to the time constraint.
However, imagine that you need more money for a particular project phase. Once again, you could talk to the stakeholders and ask for more funds. But there’s a big chance you wouldn’t be able to convince them to make a more significant investment if there isn’t any room for it in their overall budget.
You could also try eliminating a bothersome project constraint — though that approach is unlikely to work with most project constraints.
For instance, if you need a particular type of equipment to produce something — but it won’t be available for another 3 months — you cannot just go for any other type and hope for the best. You must consider the implications in this case, such as:
- How will the new equipment affect the product quality?
- Will your team know how to use it?
- Is the equipment safe to use at all?
So, a more reasonable solution would be to get exactly the equipment you need from another supplier — or just delay the project.
On the other hand, if a team member has been producing poor and damaging results recently — the only sensible solution would be to replace them, thereby removing the constraint.
Tip #3: Stay flexible and adapt to the changing circumstances
If you cannot adjust the problematic constraints, you can always work around it. This entails adjusting your project management approach to it to ensure you still fulfill your project goals.
For instance, if the project schedule suddenly has to be slashed by half, there’s little chance you can deliver the whole project scope without exhausting your resources and possibly endangering the quality of the whole project. In that case, your best bet is to reduce the project scope in agreement with the stakeholders.
Alternatively, you can adjust other constraints — and even the way you normally work — to honor the time constraint. If you must speed up project completion, 2 schedule compression methods instantly come to mind:
- Project crashing, which demands employing additional resources, and
- Fast tracking in project management, which entails performing project activities in parallel instead of sequentially.
In general, working around the constraint entails being adaptable to changing circumstances and nurturing flexibility in all aspects of the project management process.
Tip #4: Document and track your project constraints
Another expert we consulted, Elizabeth Harrin, APM Fellow, author of Managing Multiple Projects, and the expert behind Rebel’s Guide to Project Management, also maintains there isn’t just one single method to follow when managing constraints. In her experience, though, keeping a running list of the constraints can definitely help:
“Project constraints can be managed in a number of ways. For example, date-driven constraints can be baked into the Gantt chart you use to manage the work. Other types of constraints can be written into the project documentation. In my experience, I keep a list in our project management tool. They just become part of the boundaries and expectations for the project, and they shape decision-making.”
Tip #5: Consider if another project’s constraints can affect yours
We’ve talked a lot about how constraints affect each other, but Elizabeth Harrin pointed out another key observation — it’s not just our project’s constraints that we must take into account:
“Don’t forget that other projects might have constraints that affect your project. For example, there might be resource constraints on a project using a subject matter expert that you also need on your project. You’ll have to schedule their activities of your project around their availability.”
Tip #6: Follow best practices to ensure project success
Finally, remember that relying on best practices while managing project constraints should also better your chances of bringing the project to a successful close. Annette Hayes emphasizes the following best practices:
- “Listen carefully to the customer, sponsor, or product owner’s needs and expected outcomes.
- Identify potential barriers early on instead of waiting to “see what happens” later on.
- Be honest! Set clear expectations at the beginning of any project, especially if something does not seem feasible.
- Have ongoing and clear communication with your stakeholder, and when needed, provide alternative solutions and possible implications of your particular constraint.
- When possible and if you have the authority, make trade-offs that allow you to still deliver a successful project.”
Conclusion: Project constraints are inevitable but manageable
At a glance, constraints in project management may seem like terrible restrictions the project manager must fight day in, day out. In reality, constraints in project management give projects an all-too-necessary structure that guides us toward successful project execution.
Project constraints aren’t necessarily good or bad — they’re just inevitable. You cannot hope to work on a project without any constraints. You can, however, use your skills to manage them effectively.
Still, as they’re such a big part of project management, it’s essential not to view constraints as signs of potential doom. Instead, see them as a series of project management challenges you have to overcome — or play along with — to ensure your projects end on a high note.
📖 Now that you know more about project constraints, continue learning about project management and all it entails by browsing our Project Management Glossary of Terms.
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