What Is the Project Management Triangle?

Written by Coursera • Updated on

The project management triangle is a visual representation of the relationship between the scope, time, and budget constraints in project management.

[Featured Image] A woman is presenting the project management triangle.

The project management triangle is a model in project management that shows how the balance between three constraints—scope, time, and budget—affects the quality of the project. The triangle shows that affecting one constraint will mean adjusting one or both of the others in order to maintain the quality. It’s also called the triple constraint model or the iron triangle. Project managers must oversee all three of these constraints in order to complete a project successfully. 

Let’s say that you need to expand the scope of a project. This might mean extending the original schedule of the project, or increasing the budget in order not to affect the quality of the output. Likewise, shortening the schedule to meet an earlier deadline might mean increasing the budget or tightening the scope. Need to absolutely reduce the budget and timeline without changing the scope? Then the triangle might have to shrink—meaning the quality of the product might be reduced.

Project management triangle showing the relationship between scope, cost, and time, and how it affects the quality of a project.
Image from Google Project Management: Professional Certificate.

  • Scope: Scope refers to the deliverables and tasks that must be completed to achieve the project’s goals. The scope might change if stakeholders decide mid-project that they want to adjust a product, or add another product entirely.

  • Cost: Project cost is the total amount of money required to complete a project. This is also called the budget. Costs might include salaries for employees, and money for equipment, tools, office space, and other resources. Adding new members to a team or increasing the time it takes to complete a project can impact cost.

  • Time: Time is how long it takes to complete tasks in a project, and the project itself. This constraint is also called the schedule. An expanded scope can increase timelines. So can a decreased budget—for example, if a team member is removed from the team due to budget constraints, it can take longer to complete a project.

Some models show an enhanced project management “triangle” with six constraints. The six-constraint model adds benefit (sometimes replaced by “resources”), risk, and quality as three more separate constraints [1]. This model is sometimes depicted as a six-point star made from two overlapping triangles.

Project management triangle: Why it matters

The project management triangle is a useful concept for project managers for the following reasons:

  • It helps to see how changing one project constraint will affect other constraints. If you change the scope of a product you’re hoping to launch, you know that either the budget needs to increase, or the timeline needs to be extended (or both).

  • It can help mitigate risks. Say your project to launch a new piece of software has a hard deadline, and you’re worried your engineers will fall behind. You can ask stakeholders for a contingency budget, just in case you need to hire another engineer to help complete tasks.

  • It can clarify priorities in a project. Does your project have a hard deadline, a strict budget, or very specific deliverable requirements? Knowing this can give you a better idea of what a successful project will look like.

video-placeholder
Loading...
The project management triangle is an essential concept to know in project management.

Managing the project management triangle

Here are concrete ways you can balance the constraints of the project management triangle. 

  • Communicate with stakeholders: Speak with stakeholders to know what is acceptable change and which constraints should be prioritized. Is the deadline immovable or the budget strict? This will give you an idea of how the project can adapt should changes become necessary. This is a crucial step in the initial stages of the project, but frequent communication should happen throughout the project as well.

  • Establish risk management processes: Planning for risks should be a step baked into your project management process to prevent scope creep and stay within budget and on schedule. Identify risks, then establish a plan to mitigate each. If you’re looking for more detail, read about how to manage project risks.

  • Create change management processes: Change is often inevitable. Having a change management process in place creates a structured way for changes to be approved or rejected. This ensures the team is aware of changes as they happen and how they impact the project. This can also reduce scope creep.

  • Choose a methodology based on constraints: You might opt to adopt a project management methodology based on the constraints you face. Projects that face strict constraints are often managed through Waterfall-type approaches. If you need more flexibility, an Agile method like Scrum might be more fitting. Projects where inefficiencies need to be minimized as much as possible can benefit from a Lean approach.

Read more: 12 Project Management Methodologies: Your Guide

Getting started in project management

Mastering the project management triangle is one of the many fundamental concepts aspiring project managers should have under their belt. If you’re looking for a place to learn other essentials of project management, check out the Google Project Management: Professional Certificate.

Placeholder

professional certificate

Google Project Management:

Start your path to a career in project management. In this program, you’ll learn in-demand skills that will have you job-ready in less than six months. No degree or experience is required.

4.8

(66,839 ratings)

852,993 already enrolled

BEGINNER level

Average time: 6 month(s)

Learn at your own pace

Skills you'll build:

Organizational Culture, Career Development, Strategic Thinking, Change Management, Project Management, Stakeholder Management, Business Writing, Project Charter, Project Planning, Risk Management, Task Estimation, Procurement, Quality Management, Project Execution, Coaching, Influencing, Agile Management, Problem Solving, Scrum, Effective Communication

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Related articles

Article sources

1. Project Management Institute. "Six (yes six!) constraints: An enhanced model for project control, https://www.pmi.org/learning/library/six-constraints-enhanced-model-project-control-7294." Accessed September 15, 2021.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

Learn without limits