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The Six Dimensions of Project Management: Turning Constraints into Resources

The Six Dimensions of Project Management: Turning Constraints into Resources

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The Six Dimensions of Project Management: Turning Constraints into Resources

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Lançado em:
Jun 1, 2007


Master the Six Dimensions of the Project Management Universe!
Learn how to turn constraints into resources to achieve project objectives! Through case studies and practical exercises, The Six Dimensions of Project Management demonstrates the six possible combinations (or dimensions) of the “hierarchy of constraints"" (time, cost, and performance existing in a hierarchy of driver, middle and weak constraint) and the specific set of challenges and opportunities associated with each. Project managers will learn how to recognize a project's dimension and, by understanding its set of problems and resources, get the job done on time, on budget, and to spec!

You will uncover hidden flexibility, unlock valuable new resources, discover threats before they turn into problems, and win the admiration of customers and projects sponsors alike. You'll learn:
•How to use the “inner purpose” of a project to empower project mangers and team players
•Why certain kinds of failure point the way to higher levels of success
•What creates opposition to your project—and how to leverage it for your benefit
•Where to look to find creative opportunities on every project
Lançado em:
Jun 1, 2007

Sobre o autor

Michael S. Dobson, PMP has written five previous books on project management topics, as well as numerous books on management, office politics, and military/alternate history. He speaks and consults worldwide on project management topics for government and private industry. Michael has been vice president of Discovery Software International; vice president of Games Workshop (US); director of new product development and marketing for TSR, Inc.; president of a career counseling and strategy firm; and a member of the team that built and opened the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.

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The Six Dimensions of Project Management - Michael S. Dobson PMP



Even if a project is properly and carefully scoped, it can turn out incomplete. This book is the result of one such project, the writing of Michael Dobson’s The Triple Constraints in Project Management, a volume in Management Concepts’ Project Management Essential Library. About halfway through the book, Michael realized there was much more to say about the topic. He proposed canceling the existing book and writing an expanded version, but the Management Concepts publishing division had another idea: finish the Essential Library volume and then write the expanded book.

Some of the fundamental information needed to be in both books, so we agreed that this book would contain a fairly large chunk of its predecessor—about a fourth of the present volume. This meant, of course, that nearly twenty-five percent of the book was written before the writing officially started—a pleasant prospect for an author.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Michael’s third novel, a fictional examination of the land invasion of Japan that did not happen because of the A-bomb, occupied the better part of a year, and in the meantime even the cases in the original book warranted upgrading. The project became somewhat larger than initially conceived.

Enter historian, educator, and cross-cultural expert Heidi Feickert. Her historical and project management insights were particularly suited for the present project—as was her shared taste for quirky quotes. All the sections, including those pulled from the previous volume, have undergone expansion and improvement. The book was completed almost exactly a year after it was due, and as any editor will tell you, that’s not too late.

Michael lectures on project management topics and consults on specific project problems. Heidi consults on cross-cultural management issues. You may contact the authors through Management Concepts or via www.dobsonsolutions.com.

Michael Dobson

Heidi Feickert

Bethesda, Maryland


The Triple Constraints

Einstein’s Three Rules of Work:

1. Out of clutter, find simplicity.

2. From discord, find harmony.

3. In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.

—Albert Einstein (attributed)


Into the Sixth Dimension!

We grow sometimes in one dimension and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another.

—Anais Nin

Management writers have pillaged the lives of leaders both real (Attila the Hun) and fictional (Jean-Luc Make-It-So Picard of the starship Enterprise) to illustrate the principles of management effectiveness, even going so far as to call our attention to the royal companions of Oz who join Dorothy in her quest to find the wizard: what a leader I could be if I only had a brain … a heart … the noive!¹

Project management is a discipline of the trenches, however, not of the classroom. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge® (PMBOK® Guide²) notwithstanding, that which is valuable and vital in the project management body of knowledge was developed primarily by practicing project managers, with the peculiar heroism that is specific to the breed. Traditionally, the project manager struggles with inadequate resources and a too-tight schedule while striving toward excellence—and surprisingly often achieves it. And this achievement comes in the face of a lack of sufficient formal positional authority, customers who may not know what they want (but who nevertheless recognize when you don’t give it to them), and an environment in which project objectives mutate like fungus in a cheap horror movie.


We learn from those who have gone before us. Sir Isaac Newton said, If I see farther than other men, it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants. Pablo Picasso made this advice operational: Mediocre artists borrow. Great artists steal. Acquiring and learning from role models is an acceptable form of thievery. We learn positive lessons from others’ successes and cautions from others’ failures. To which we add Carl Sagan: [T]he fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.

As we take arms against a sea of project management troubles, we pit our brain, our heart, and our nerve against the triple constraints of time, cost, and performance (see Figure 1-1). Let us stand on the shoulders of Isaac Newton’s giants, learn from Carl Sagan’s bozos, and (pace Picasso) practice pilfering project management ideas wherever they may be found.

Our guiding principle here will be: Why do things the hard way? What can we learn from those who have gone before? Some projects, to be sure, go more or less according to plan, and problems are manageable. More often, it sometimes seems, a project is like the S.S. Minnow, a vast wasteland. Your planned three-hour cruise gets hijacked by an unexpected storm, and all too soon you find yourself cast away with a big pile of unopened FedEx boxes on a desert isle talking to a painted volleyball about your problems.

Take these begged, borrowed, or stolen insights and apply them operationally. Operational comes from military use and in this context will be used to identify what I can learn from others and apply as a rule of thumb, so that my project and I don’t end up cast away on that deserted isle.

The experiences of others build the tools of project management, allowing us to excavate hidden resources and opportunities within each project. Unlocking the mysteries of the critical path, we find slack and the ability to reallocate resources. Through effective risk planning, we eliminate many problems before they have a chance to occur. From the triple constraints, we discover the central reason for the project and find a hidden source of flexibility and creative opportunity.

These last two—flexibility and creative opportunity—we argue, are the essential tools for maximizing project results.


The triple constraints derive from the three essential questions of project management:

•  "How long do I have?

•  "How much can I spend? (money and resources)

•  "What exactly does this puppy have to do, anyway?"

Answering these questions is the first concern of a project manager, and they relate to this fundamental—yet surprisingly unexplored—concept in project management. The triple constraints derive from the definition of a project in the PMBOK® Guide: a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service.³

Fig. 1-1. The three fundamental constraints of time, cost, and performance set the borders of your project universe.

The PMBOK® Guide section 1.2, which contains this definition, also identifies by implication another important characteristic of projects: they take place inside organizations. And in every organization, from the time of the pyramids down to the present day, regardless of subject matter or sector, there is a practically infinite amount of useful, desirable stuff that needs to be done (for projects and ongoing work), and finite resources with which to do them. It follows, therefore, that every time we give you a dollar, or a body, or a week for your project, that’s a dollar, a body, or a week we can’t give someone else for a job that also has merit.

The result is scarcity, and scarcity gives us the triple constraints: a deadline, a budget, and at least a minimum level of acceptable performance. Choices must be made, priorities must be set, and project managers must still get the job done. When the going gets tough, the tough get going (and sometimes that means getting your résumé spruced up so you can go on your own timetable).

For project managers from the novice to the most experienced and senior, triple constraints issues are at the core of the most crucial decisions about a project. Reading them correctly can unlock huge resources that make impossible projects possible. Failure to understand them, interpret them, and exploit them correctly can doom your project, even if all else is done to a high standard of excellence.

Why is this so? First and foremost, it occurs because managing projects is the art of creating a deliverable under difficult and in some cases impossible constraints. There is little we cannot accomplish given unlimited stores of time and wealth along with extremely flexible project requirements. But that, of course, is seldom the project manager’s lot in life.

Moreover, the constraints lead us to that most valuable of project management benefits: the discovery of hidden resources and opportunities within the established boundaries.

The secret of the triple constraints, to our great fortune, is that they are not equally constraining. They exist in a hierarchy of driver, middle, and weak constraint. The driver must be met or the project fails. The weak, at the other extreme, has the greatest flexibility, and that flexibility gives us opportunity. What’s worst? Miss a deadline, go over budget, or fail to deliver every iota of the expected performance? In practice, it all depends on the situation.

On any given project, the triple constraints form themselves into a natural hierarchy. As the joke says, Do you want it good, fast, or cheap? Pick two. There’s normally a reason why a particular hierarchy produces the best outcomes. Six possible combinations offer different challenges and different opportunities. All projects of the same pattern (for example, time, cost, and performance) have important characteristics in common: challenges, opportunities, and management issues. These are the six dimensions of project management and of this book’s title (see Table 1-1).

By learning to recognize the proper hierarchy and constraints for your project (your project dimension) and knowing the most likely problems and some special resources each dimension offers, you’ll have more tools to help you get the job done on time, on budget, to spec, and with a happy customer at the end.

Table 1-1. The Six Dimensions of the Triple Constraints


We don’t do projects for our health. As Woody Allen observed in another context (it’s the joke with which he ends Annie Hall), we do it because we need the eggs. We need the output of the project, the benefit that the project is intended to supply. The goal of the project, not the project itself, is the prime mover. Don’t forget it.

So what’s the $64,000 question? It’s Why? Why are we doing this project? Why not a different project? Why this direction? Why this outcome? Why these specifications? Why not other ones?

The driver of the project isn’t chosen or decided on but is rather discovered growing organically out of the project’s purpose. What must we accomplish to be successful—or, contrawise, what failures might be fatal to our project? And remember, if the customer or client hasn’t figured out the purpose enough to explain the why when asked, then it’s a dangerous idea to start the project. Customers who don’t know what they want at the outset always seem to know when you haven’t delivered what they want at the end.

Interestingly, the 2004 PMBOK® Guide shows a content shift from the 2000 PMBOK® Guide, recognizing a need to identify the why behind a project.⁵ We predict that asking the question why will increasingly become standard among project management best practices.


Although the fundamental concept of the triple constraints is fairly straightforward, its implications are numerous and sometimes subtle, and they often come as a surprise to project managers, even quite senior ones. The study of the triple constraints is one of the most overlooked fundamentals of project management. On its foundation, you can build a substantial and powerful understanding of your project that can empower you through a wide range of challenges.

Without the triple constraints, projects run the risk of becoming divorced from purpose. Alfred L. Loomis, the Wall Street tycoon and amateur scientist who invented ultrasound, financed the development of the cyclotron, and oversaw the development of radar, told this story of his World War I days at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, where he served as the military officer in charge of the research and development (R&D) division. While working with a unit of cannoneers, he was puzzled to notice that one soldier walked 50 paces in back of the rest of the unit and would stand at attention for hours at a time with one arm slightly raised. Curious, Loomis inquired as to his role. It turned out that this soldier historically was the one who held the horses. The horses had been replaced, but the soldier remained on the job.

When a project manager and a team are assigned to a project, there’s pressure, both internal and external, to get started ASAP. Where’s the project plan? How soon can we see the first deliverable? Have we finished writing down the specifications and requirements? Although the desire to be productive is commendable, the rush to get busy often proves counterproductive. The why is assumed rather than explored and examined, with consequences that may not become fully apparent until much later—and perhaps much too late—in the project life cycle. Questions such as the following may help client and project manager alike gain a much deeper understanding of the why—and consequently the what—of the project at hand:

•  What is the problem we’re trying to solve or the opportunity we’re hoping to exploit?

•  Is this the best way to do it? Have we considered other ways to achieve the underlying objective?

•  What are the potential side effects of this project? Will we create new problems in the attempt to solve the issue at hand?

•  How will the environment be different when the project is finished? What new behaviors or actions will take place using the product or function created by the project?

While holding nonexistent horses is a wasteful thing, it’s often valuable to remind yourself and members of your project team to hold your horses just a little bit when starting your project. Slow down at the outset long enough to figure out what the real objective is. You’ll make up the time—and more—by the problems you’ll avoid when you get busy.

Your Tools

In this book, we’ve compiled a cross-section of past projects that offer colorful lessons and insights about the triple constraints. We’ll explore these six dimensions through these projects, discovering common principles that can be transferred to your own projects. Of necessity, we should note, there has been some simplification and abstraction of details.

For each project:

•  Answer the question why do we need the project?

•  Determine the dimension (hierarchy of the triple constraints) into which the project falls

•  Apply those answers operationally (we’ll also identify rules you can take across the boundary into your own projects)

•  Learn how flexibility and the right kinds of failure can be the key to project success

To begin, we offer a comparison of how understanding—or failing to understand—a project’s triple constraints hierarchy affects the project outcome. Following a deeper analysis of the triple constraints, each section contains several illustrative project cases.

Other chapters will show you how to analyze your own project to discover its proper dimension, how to deal with projects whose stakeholders pull it into cross-dimensional rifts, and how to use the special resources associated with triple constraint analysis to find creative and powerful solutions to your projects.

Your Mission, Mr. Phelps

The purpose of this book is to stimulate your thinking about your own projects. Your projects are the ones that really matter. As you’re reading these cases, ask yourself how these situations might echo projects with which you’ve been involved, and whether these new insights and tools would have made changes in the decisions and approaches you took in managing the projects. Consider the following:

•  Have I been involved in a project with the same triple constraints hierarchy (for example, time, cost, performance, or performance, time, cost)

•  Which issues in this case have paralleled issues in projects I’ve experienced? How did the problems and solutions compare with those I faced?

•  How would knowing the order of constraints and applying the techniques in the book have changed my actions and outcomes?

Think about your current projects as well. What problems, challenges, and risks are you facing? Where will you get the resources and reserves necessary to face them? Apply the same questions to your future projects and consider how exploiting the flexibility in the weak constraint to meet the absolute requirement of the driver might help you develop a strategy for managing risks and resources on your new project.

When the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems look like nails. There are no universal tools, and the practical project manager cultivates a rich collection of tools to be sure of having something useful to fit any occasion. But some tools get used more often than others, and for us, the triple constraints and hierarchy of constraints are the first tools out of the box on any new project. We believe you’ll find them every bit as useful on your own projects.


1. Every time we give you a dollar, or a body, or a week for your project, that’s a dollar, a body, or a week we can’t give someone else for a job that also has merit. The result is scarcity, and scarcity gives us the triple constraints: a deadline, a budget, and at least a minimum level of acceptable performance.

2. The triple constraints exist in a hierarchy of driver, middle, and weak constraint. The driver we have to meet, or else the project fails. The weak, at the other extreme, has the greatest flexibility, and that flexibility gives us opportunity.

3. All projects of the same pattern (for example, time, cost, and performance) have important characteristics in common: challenges, opportunities, and management issues.

4. The most important—and most often overlooked—question in project management is Why? If the customer or client hasn’t figured out the purpose enough to explain the why when asked, then you’re not ready to start.

5. Hold your horses. Slow down at the outset long enough to identify the real objective. You’ll make up the time—and more—by the problems you’ll avoid when you get busy.

¹Nerve, in Bert Lahr’s tough-guy Cowardly Lion voice, along with the Scarecrow’s brain and the Tin Woodman’s heart.

²Project Management Institute, A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), 3rd ed. (Newtown Square, Pennsylvania: Project Management Institute, 2004), 4.

³ PMBOK® Guide, 5.

⁴The $64,000 question was (a) a TV game show rocked by scandal, (b) a companion to the Defense Department’s $300 hammer and $500 toilet seat, (c) Michael’s standard consulting fee, or (d) the cost of the PMP® exam. Do you want to phone a friend, ask the audience, or go 50/50? If your final answer is a, you’re only five more questions away from the million dollar jackpot.

⁵See PMBOK® Guide, sections 4.1 and 4.2, referencing business need and business case.

⁶Jennet Conant, Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), 34–35.

⁷From the opening of every Mission: Impossible episode.


Succeeding and Failing on Constraint Management

… Then, yielding to our intellectual onset, the gates of the Sixth Dimension shall fly open; after that a Seventh …

—A. Square, in Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions,

by Edwin A. Abbott (1884)

Skeptics and reluctant learners abound—and your authors have more than once been included in that number. Organizations ask, What’s the ROI? and the team member asks What’s the WIIFM?¹ These are both good questions. We begin, therefore, with two case studies illustrating the payoff to be had by understanding a project’s hierarchy of constraints.

These two case studies both involve NASA. The differing outcomes have little to do with luck, as some might contend (although being lucky matters—Napoleon demanded it of his generals). Rather, they have a great deal more to do with how the project teams understood their missions and how they leveraged what flexibility they could find.


May you live in interesting times.

—Eric Frank Russell (as Duncan H. Munro)

in Astounding Science Fiction (1950)

(often cited incorrectly as an ancient Chinese curse)

Case 1: Apollo 13 CO2 Exchanger, NASA Houston, Project Managers

Sudden, drastic changes in project constraints—loss of a resource, change in a delivery date, or changes in client expectations—will affect the hierarchy of constraints on a project. Stark changes, caused when a project migrates from one dimension to another, require an immediate and wholesale change in thinking at all levels of the project team. Consider how the constraints hierarchy drove the project before the change and how it was rethought postimpact.

Failure Is Not an Option

In discussing preparation of the movie Apollo 13, Flight Dynamics Officer Jerry C. Bostick had this to say about his meeting with the script writers:

In preparation for the movie [Apollo 13], the script writers, Reinart and Broyles, came … to interview me. One of their questions was, Weren’t there times when everybody, or at least a few people, just panicked? My answer was, "No, when bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them. We never panicked, and we never gave up on finding a solution. I immediately sensed that Broyles wanted to leave and assumed that he was bored with the interview. Only months later did I learn that when they got in their car to leave, he started screaming, That’s it! That’s the tag line for the whole movie, Failure is not an option. Now we just have to figure out who to have say it." Of course, they gave it to the [Gene] Kranz [Mission Director, played by Ed Harris] character, and the rest is history.²

Oops must be the word we least want to hear on high-risk projects. What follows will almost never be good news. Such was the case at exactly 55 hours, 54 minutes, and 53.555 seconds into the mission of Apollo 13. This project underwent an instantaneous transfer from the Performance/Time/Cost dimension into the Time/Cost/Performance dimension when oxygen tank number 2 on board the spacecraft exploded.

You probably won’t see the American Movie Classics channel run a festival of Great Project Management Movies any time soon, but if they did, Ron Howard’s motion picture Apollo 13, based on the real-life story, would be a natural candidate. Faced with a potentially disastrous accident, project teams overcome one potentially fatal barrier after another to bring the crew safely back to Earth (see Figure 2-1), guided by mission director Gene Kranz’s mantra, Failure is not an option.

But of course failure is an option. Sometimes, it looks like the most likely option of all. The odds in the actual Apollo 13 disaster were stacked against a happy outcome, and everyone—including Gene Kranz—had to be well aware of that fact. At the same time, however, letting the idea of failure into your mind can be a psychological trap that leads you to premature surrender. We’ve heard the fable of the two frogs who fell into a pail of milk. One, realizing he could not jump out, surrendered to the inevitable and drowned. The other, refusing to admit defeat, continued to paddle and in the process churned the milk into an island of butter, where he rested until the farmer came, found him, and threw him out. How do you balance the value of realism against the value of optimism in solving problems? As we’ll shortly see, one way is to reject the false dilemma the question poses. To see how we do this, let’s break down the problem.

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