I like to think of the constraints put on a project to finish like the pressure put on coal to make a diamond. If you apply the right amount of constraint, the end result will be stronger, clearer, and more elegant.
Many of my clients, both in my consulting and in my agency life, have been surprised to learn that I am “happier with a smaller and established project budget” vs. having to create an often larger budget based on aspirations and loosely defined goals. Now I admit, I didn’t always think this way. I once wanted more time, more budget, and more team on every project.
The challenge however, wasn’t having limited resources — the challenge was developing the appropriate strategy AND having the experience to develop constraints for the project succeed with less or enough.
The reality is that constraints should be as sought after in a project as resources and allowances. Being realistic about healthy constraints, their effect on each other, and their effect on the overall project outcome can provide a much clearer picture of how you actually finish. An important thing to keep in mind when developing constraints is they do not live inside of a vacuum and mutually exclusive of one another. They typically affect each other and often reinforce each other, which is actually rad and super-helpful when communicating as subject-matter-expert with stakeholders. You’ll notice in reading this post that there can be considerable amount of overlap when establishing multiple constraints.
Here are the 3 main areas of constraint that I use inside of every project:
Time & Schedules:
Build a project calendar that contains well-established and well known milestones, reviews, status indicators, and deadlines. Most importantly, try like the dickens not to move them.
Everyone assigned on a project would love a long, spacious, even luxurious timeline. Unfortunately, more time doesn’t usually mean productivity. Finding the exact amount of time needed for a project to end successfully can be tricky and like anything else, you’ll get better at predicting it with experience. That said, I have an approach that never fails.
Rather than building a schedule forward and without always knowing what stage/need comes next instinctively, I use a method appropriately called backfilling when making schedules.
Working with a desired deadline or delivery date, I backfill all of the milestones, reviews, stand-ups, deliverables, management touch-points etc. — everything that I would insist upon having to finish successfully. No more, no less. Of course, I make sure to involve all participants and gather valuable input when backfilling the schedule and establishing key milestones. If there simply isn’t enough time to hit the requirements of your schedule, you’ll need to move the deadlines out, start time up, or a mixture of the two. Either way, this constraint works hand-in-hand with other constraints and as mentioned above, supports each other really well. Perhaps most important is that you get REALLY smart REALLY fast at how long something normally takes and what all goes into making it happen.
The question that every client or project stakeholder is usually looking to have answered is, “how much will this cost?”. A good follow up question from any project manager should be “how much should it cost?”. If you’re keen on seeing things finish and launch, open checkbooks and limitless cash won’t typically help you to deliver.
First, it’s important to know where the budgets comes from? How were they established? Are they sensible? In the world of the client <> agency relationship, either a client will bring a project budget to the agency, or ask the agency to produce a quote (price) for the work they’re requesting. In this case, let’s assume the client has provided a somewhat fixed budget. Remember, I like budgets ;). Without getting into the details of scoping and requirements gathering used to ensure a project starts and finishes successfully, how can you constrain the budget to deliver on the goals of the client?
A method that I have found to be super-effective for creating healthy budget constraints, inspired by the Pareto Principle of 80/20, is expressing that we use an upfront portion of the total budget to define the deliverables that will achieve each goal. In other words, aim 25% (give or take) of a total budget to produce a scope-of-work that hits the desired goals AND inside the remaining budget (75%). Why this is such a great approach in the agency <> client world is that both parties can more often find an opportunity to work together — which is what they both want.
So, rather than trying to constrain an entire budget, I use a percentage of an existing budget to constrain the expenditure of the remaining budget against goals, timeline, and deliverables.
By this time, you’re probably beginning to see the overlap and effect that each constraint can have on one another. But what about goals? How do you constrain someone’s goals!? They’re like, my goals — the things I want to accomplish!
The trick here is not how you constrain a goal, but how you prioritize and define goals. In doing this well, you’ll effectively constrain the goals.
The way that I have evolved goal-setting to be more accurate is by first developing a definition of success. Once you’ve defined what a successful outcome can look like, you can better constrain each goal. From there, you can better understand the requirements and resources needed to hit each goal. For both teams, this means that the project can start on path to finish, the goals can be hit, and we can both agree on what is important to achieve.
Thinking about constraining goals even now, having established budgets and timelines can be wonderful to include when creating a definition of success. Ahhhh the virtuousness! Ok awesome, but what else can constraints do for my work?
Here are additional (and darn valuable) benefits that come from using constraints:
Heightened creativity — When designing with less and under constraint, we find ourselves using uncommon methods and resources, producing more unique solutions.
Opportunity cost — Constraints help to actualize the investment you are making alongside the desired outcomes, thus making ROIs more predictable and measurable
Successfully finish … things — By constraining our options, we’re forced to focus on the essentials and not be taken off course by less critical things.
Constraint Methods, Tips, & Tricks:
Backfill schedules — Start from the end and work your way back. If it can’t be done, reset and start over.
Almost any budget will do — Use a portion of the total budget in the beginning to constrain the efforts in the remaining budget.
Meet goals with essentialism — Develop 1 definition of success and refine goals that only support that definition
Constrain all the things — These constraints can be used for any project, literally. Whether it be application development, designing a brand, or even a home improvement project.
Thank you for reading!
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