Pick Two, but only Two

We kind of have a running joke in our corporate PMO and for project kick-off meetings that the business and department requesting the project can “Pick Two.” The idea comes from the fact that every owner or executive sponsor wants his or her project to be A) Great B) On Time and C) Under Budget. The dilemma occurs obviously that if everyone asked for those three criteria for every project there would simply be no way for the PMO to satisfy for every project.  One of the things I have witnessed in my corporate experience from the business user role, is that everyone, and I have been guilty of this numerous times as well, thinks his or her project should be given the utmost importance and priority in terms of timelines and resources from the PMO.

The idea that the rules and formal structure of the PMO are absolutely necessary for managing successful projects is clearly understood and agreed upon by the business users…they just simply do not apply to “this project, this time.” Everyone thinks their project, this time, warrants circumvention of the rules, maybe it should be moved to the head of the line or have additional resources pulled off other projects or the completion date being quoted needs to be moved up substantially. However, all aspects need to still stay on budget.

I have limited experience in terms of being in the PM role, but I have been on a number of projects from the requester side or as an executive sponsor for our department. The website below lists some good concepts for project managers and I have highlighted a few that I have found critical from my experience.

Learn How to Communicate at Every Level – One of the most important overall skills for a project manager in my opinion is overall communication. The article makes the clear distinction that each level needs to be exposed to a different level of detail and being able to understand those levels is critical to the project success.
Manage Your Stakeholders – “It is imperative to communicate with your stakeholders early…and often.” If I have a few days or even weeks to slowly break the news to my vice president that a project will be over budget or late, it is a much better situation than if we are getting towards the time of the projects where he is asking those questions on his own. If there is enough time to discuss and communicate the negative information, the news can be better managed at all levels.
Praise your Team Accomplishments, No Matter How Small – I have been on countless projects where I felt the PM acted more of a supervisor, simply asking for tasks to be completed, than that of a someone leading a project. It is amazing how far a “Thank you” email or a little comment in the meeting minutes will help the working conditions and motivate the team on the project.

I think the article points out some good fundamental concepts for being a successful project manager. I feel an underlying theme in a number of the topics is managing the expectations of the business and how communicating throughout the project is a critical component for being a success in the eyes of leadership. Being able to get the requesting group to understand they can Pick Two –Great, Cheap, or Fast – and only two for their project, will hopefully set the project into a successful path from the first meeting.

Do you think this concept of Pick Two is a viable one from the role of the PMO?
What about from the business standpoint, it is realistic to only expect two of the three criteria for projects?

12 thoughts on “Pick Two, but only Two

  1. I think that the PMO should challenge themselves to deliver all three. Although two may be what is most common, I believe it takes that much more effect to deliver on all three. From the business side I believe expectations are as high as can be. Their expectations are anything that they want it to be, which can be tough to deliver from the PMO side. The way I think of it is similar to what we discussed in class when expectations are set low on one project when the deliverables exceed expectations then management sets higher expectations on the next project. If the PMO delivers on all three then I believe they were able to achieve a harmony of what I call the “business trinity” which is time, money, and quality.

  2. Thanks for the comment. In our company, some of the expectations from the business side are unrealistic in my opinion. Everyone feels their project should take top position on the PMO work list, because their executive management feels that way. A number of the projects are ‘interconnected’ as well, so to complete Project A on time, the PMO might need to complete Projects 1, 2, and 3 beforehand. I still feel that setting expectations early in the projects regarding risks and potential delays is critical. This along with regular communication to the project teams and sponsors will help keep everyone is on the same page with timelines and limited the surprises to management when things become delayed of over budget.

  3. I enjoyed reading this because in my position we always talk to the Business and Operations folks in these terms, but never explicitly stated the “Pick Two” option. It is an interesting way to address projects that are loosely defined or do not have the best financial estimates, which in my experience tend to lead to scope creep more and poor budgeting. However, some recent management changes at the top have some new modified definitions of what a “great” product or project is. His feelings are that sometimes, we as a company, tend to let “striving for perfection” get in the way of “good enough”. He cites several products and technologies that were launched that are not perfect but it was 80 to 90% there, it was able to hook the consumer, satisfy their need and gain traction in the marketplace or steal market share. His feelings are striving for that final 10% of perfection is when time and costs can go out the window because it is only incremental changes that are possible. Get the product to market and deal with the balance as a running change.

  4. Zach, really liked your thought of “pick two.” Outside of project management, I often times have to applied this to my manager who can throw too much on our plates and demand things do to a high level and a certain way. I tell her its only going to be two of the three, one time and done to a high level, but not always her way or a certain way. I also have been able to practice the communication portion of managing a project. I started two weeks ago and continue to send FYI, status updates, and executive summaries. And you make a great point on who to communicate what to. I’m not communicating minor details to senior leads, just the headlines.

  5. This is a well-written post.

    Completing a project under budget, on schedule, and exceeding goals and expectations is unrealistic in today’s business world. In some organizations, obtaining one out of three is difficult and is often the norm. Having the thought process of hitting two out of three is a solid way for Project Managers to set realistic standards for their teams. The article you provided improves a project manager’s chances of completing a project that has all three aspects. The concept of being a strong decision maker definitely resonated with me. When managers waffle between decisions or fail to make a decision, employees become confused and the workplace becomes unbearable. All managers and employee reserve the right to change their mind, but once a decision is made Project Managers must stand behind it and only adjust their strategy when the decision does not prove to be profitable.

  6. Great post and comments. I agree with Kevin’s comments that the “Pick Two” option is not explicitly stated, but often implied. I do think the concept is viable from the PMO side. Depending on the business or department, it may be unrealistic to only expect two of the three criteria. From my limited experience in product development, I also have witnessed departments strive for perfection. If the goals are not honestly communicated properly to a designer or engineer early and often, projects may be great, but the budgets and launch dates are completely off base. To your point, a culture of communication and understanding is a step in the right direction to expecting two or all three criteria are met.

  7. I have not managed large projects mentioned above, but I have witnessed it being executed. I have yet to see a project being completed on time. That leaves us with our obvious choices: Quality and Budget. I have noticed that both of these factors gains visibility, especially when gone wrong, from upper management. All the benefits are overseen, if PM does not deliver quality or if he/she goes over the budget. I also agree with the article, when it talks about the personality. There is definitely something about PM having certain personality. The human nature can make or break a team. Therefore, having a PM with good leadership traits is equally important.

  8. Thanks for a very interesting post. I think that it is a very common approach where the PMO can only pick two “options”. However, almost every ambitious PMO would strive to have their projects completed fast, with high quality and at a low cost. These 3 factors are interrelated and usually considered to be important measures of success. Managers often face a dilemma of completing the project fast but cheap and lower quality with limited resources spent or taking longer, but with a better quality and at a higher cost. I don’t believe that the PMO should only be pressured to pick 2 aspects out of Good, Cheap, or Fast. The decision should be aligned with the company’s strategy taking in consideration project priority level, its impact on the operations or revenue as well as product positioning on the market.

  9. Great post Zach. My post was very similar to this in talking about the three aspects of project management. More often than not in projects, you will find that at least one of the project aspects is fixed, be it time, budget, or performance. As a project manager, it is up to you to determine how to optimize the other two aspects of the project in order to meet your fixed requirement. The article you attached talks about having good communication not only among the project team, but with the stakeholders of the project as well. This is essential for when adjustments need to be made in order to meet the fixed requirements of the project and it is important to communicate any changes or difficulties to the stakeholders, especially when you know the project is no longer feasible at the current requirements with the resources you have available.

  10. Enjoyed reading your post Zach. As you know I work in a service firm and am constantly trying to take what I learn from these MBA classes and apply some version of them to what I do on the job everyday. As you mentioned, everyone believes their project deserves the highest priority and ultimately the CEO acts as our PMO. Luckily, he is very accessible and willing to listen to new ideas and so once you’ve got him in your corner and have built the business case for a new CRM or a new product to launch he is completely supportive. He will rally the troops to provide resources. My point here is that I really like the idea of “picking two” priorities for projects and plan to use that the next time I’m leading a project or at least remember to ask the question with the next team I’m on.

    1. Thanks for the response Shauna. I think you make an interesting contrasting point in terms of your CEO acting as your PMO vs what my company struggles with being a larger corporation. We essentially have a matrix organization and for even some of the largest scale projects my department works on, we do not have one person who can act as a the ‘final vote’ in disputes, scope changes, or final project direction. We have a steering committee typically comprised of 2-4 vice presidents usually from different functional areas within the company (Pharmacy, IT, Finance, Store Operations, etc.). However, I am always amazed at the number of discussions or changes that essentially end up deadlocked in these committees. Our CEO does not reside in the U.S and is very difficult to schedule time with on any projects, even at some of the dollars, scope, and impact that these may contain. There are definitely times when I feel we could be a more efficient, agile, and focused company with project management progress if we did have one accessible person making decisions similar to your service firm. Thanks again for the response.

  11. Great post and I have heard the “pick two” thought in several different companies. And while project managers obviously try to achieve all three, I think that there is a real trade off to those three items. At some point, the varying pressures on budget, quality, and timeline reach a point where something has to give. High Quality costs money, Low budget takes time or delivers lower quality, and speed compromises the other two. Basically there are three pegs in the sand and you have a loop of (unstretchable) rope that isn’t quite large enough to be wrapped around all of them. You have to move one of the goals.

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