Fast. Cheap. Good. Pick Two.

Many of you have seen the sentiment expressed in the title above, but it’s always worth remembering… and remembering we, as a species, will likely figure out how to go faster than the speed of light before we break the above constraints.

If I could add this to certain project submission forms, I would.

A post by writer Mark Evanier reminded me of how these constraints can often come into play in the writing world, which led to a good musing on his part:

How does one judge the quality constraint? (i.e. good/bad)

Producers, project managers, and writers will always try and balance these three constraints, often contending with executives who want to pretend like constraints don’t exist.

(Project managers will think of “time, scope, and cost” as the “triple constraints,” but we’ll leave the discussion of connections between scope and quality for another time).

In judging quality, it’s useful to allow that every project falls into a different “acceptance spectrum.” A good “rough order of magnitude” (ROM) estimate is automatically placing speed at a premium and therefore a “good ROM” is good with less precision than a “good detailed cost estimate.”

Let’s be honest: the same goes for writing projects. You’re likely to scrutinize that update for the internal corporate newsletter a bit less than the next chapter of your planned Great American Novel. You’re going to do your best on both, sure, but you absolutely will take more time with that novel.

Once you realize that “Good” is variable and contextual, it’s just a quick hop to realize that “fast” and “cheap” are also variable and contextual. Mind you, the constraints still apply: if you or your executives want something fast and cheap, there’s going to be a limit to how good it’s going to be (try ordering bespoke anything the fastest you can and see what that does to cost and quality). However, once you realize the balancing act, you can start making choices –and getting stakeholders to get on the record about their choices– about how fast, cheap, and good they want it. And if they want to increase speed or increase quality, guess what happens to the other constraint? The bottom line is you don’t get all three.

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