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  • Chris Gib

Interpreting the Iron Triangle

Many moons ago as a budding actor, writer, movie-maker and VFX artist, I was told of a simple model that guided all creatives: “Good, Quick, Cheap – you can only ever pick two”. Later I would discover that the industry refers to this rule as the “Production Triangle”.


From my low-budget guerrilla filmmaking perspective it made a lot of sense; I found myself able to regularly and rapidly churn out low quality (but entertaining) short films for next to nothing in terms of cost. When I wanted to start improving the quality of the final result, however, things started to get more difficult. Professional and polished productions required more time (not necessarily a problem) and more money - something I had a distinct lack of.





As my professional career moved into the realm of marketing, the Production Triangle still held true whenever I was making videos or creating graphics for my organisations, but when charged with managing even the smallest multi-faceted marketing projects, the trusty Production Triangle model no longer worked properly and it took a while to understand how or why.


It turns out that the Production Triangle has its roots in the Project Management Triangle, also known as the Triple Constraint; At each point of the triangle was Scope (‘Good’), Schedule (‘Quick’) and Budget (‘Cheap’). Popularised in the 1950s, the sentiment of this theory was that one of the three constraints would always suffer at the hands of the other two. For example, in situations where the budget is minimal and timescales are lean, the quality of the output would suffer. Or in another circumstance where high quality output is imperative alongside rapid turnaround times, then there will be a premium in terms of cost.


All of this is strikingly similar to the Production Triangle, but there’s one major difference: While the Production Triangle seems to be rigidly digital in its deployment, the Project Management Triangle works more on a set of sliding scales. Using the Production Triangle you sacrifice one element to gain benefit via the remaining two. With the Project Management Triangle there is the added complexity of deciding how much of each element you want to sacrifice to benefit from (or to the detriment of) the other two.


Therefore, it becomes a case of defining Good/Scope, Quick/Schedule and Cheap/Budget, and analysing how much the stakes change when considering which areas to compromise.


Good

What exactly does ‘Good’ look like? What metrics are being used to measure quality? ‘Perfect’ is usually the enemy of ‘Perfectly Good’. Striving to hit that final 5% in order to satisfy expectation (or ego) can instead harm a project and steer resource away from other (more important?) areas. What appears to be good internally might end up being a better (or worse) experience for the end user. If you had to compromise on the quality of the output, would that be acceptable and what overall effect would it have? Many would argue that Good/Quality is the most important of the three constraints, and therefore should never be compromised on. Others might say that the concepts of ‘Good’ or ‘Quality’ are as subjective as art or philosophy.


Quick

Rarely is any project – creative or otherwise – not subject to time constraints. It’s likely that the schedule will be the easiest, and therefore the first, element to be defined in a project - but it will also likely be the most susceptible to adjustment throughout its lifecycle. Lack of data, excitement, market forces or business criticality will dictate the initial deadline but then as other variables begin to flex, momentum will also change. Variables that could interfere with the flow of a project include suppliers, available resource, shifting KPIs, technical challenges, market forces and the quality/cost constraints. How drastically the timelines need to be adjusted will depend on the number and consistency of the variables. And as is the nature of the Triangle, adjusting the ‘Quick’ slider to account for changes will affect the ‘Good’ and ‘Cheap’ parts of the project too.


Cheap

It’s safe to say that in general, you get what you pay for. A business unconstrained by budget won’t need to concern themselves too much with this part of the puzzle and can afford to pay for high quality output delivered rapidly, but most organisations don’t have that luxury. In fact, cost is likely to be the primary factor for 99% of projects regardless of size or importance. You could say that this makes life easier; If the budget is set and unmovable, then a project manager only needs to concern themselves with the sliding scales associated with quality (good) and schedule (quick). Yet it’s not that simple. Tied to budget is the questions of ROI and risk. Risking increasing the budget may well produce better outcomes, but if those outcomes don’t convert into sales, then perhaps it’s not a risk worth taking.


Despite being a simplification of the original concept, the Production Triangle mindset (Good, Quick, Cheap – you can only ever pick two) is a more attractive set of guidelines due the apparent simplicity, yet this model isn’t particularly flexible and will only be beneficial in similarly simplistic projects. The more traditional Project Management version brings with it a raft of complexity but is much more applicable in situations containing numerous flexible variables you’ll likely encounter in projects where there are moving parts, stakeholders and expectations.


In reality, they’re the same triangle. They just mean different things to different people and are utilised for different reasons. If you are someone who understands and has been affected by the Triangle in its various guises, you will likely appreciate that it’s all a matter of nuance. Anybody committed to the belief that the Triangle can only ever be interpreted in one particular specific way will likely experience conflict and confusion somewhere down the line.


At DarkScorpio, we have our own Triangle and we sit right in the middle of it. There are no compromises. We believe that we always deliver great outcomes, we always deliver on time and we’re always cost-effective. But let’s agree on the definitions of those things first, OK?





In a later article, we’ll explore how technology and time has affected the thinking around the Project Management Triangle concept – and whether this "Iron Triangle" has become too brittle to survive an AI-led future.

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