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Getting Real With Project Constraints

written by: Joe Taylor Jr. • edited by: Marlene Gundlach • updated: 5/15/2013

Instead of worrying about how to boost budgets, lengthen deadlines, or reduce the scope of projects, some leaders find success by embracing project constraints.

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    Project Constraints and Revolving Tasks

    In many organizations, especially software development companies, projects become iterative. Development teams focus on delivering a “1.0 release," followed by a series of smaller upgrades, before launching work on the “2.0 release." In organizations that take on routine, repetitive projects, leaders can embrace project restraints within each set of tasks with the aim of learning how to make future projects run more efficiently.

    Under these conditions, it becomes easier for project managers to enforce project constraints, since dropped feature requests can be considered for future projects. Being able to assure a stakeholder that their needs could be met during the next project cycle avoids the challenge of saying “no."

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    Getting Real When You've Got Just One Shot

    However, many project managers lead teams tasked with completing one-off assignments. For these leaders, there is no “next time" when dealing with stakeholders. Keeping teams on task, on time, and under budget requires chunking down a total project into smaller milestones. Thinking about projects this way evokes an iterative project cycle, allowing more team members to grasp the totality of their assignments during each phase. A series of smaller, actionable goals often motivates teams more than feeling like they are pounding away at a huge result, especially if the team falls behind. Splitting projects into smaller cycles allows leaders to get past small failures while focusing on longer term success.

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    What Project Managers Can Learn from a Tiny Web Development Team

    37signals makes collaborative web applications that have grown in popularity among project management professionals. Basecamp Project Constraints Triangle offers online project tracking with a flexible interface, Backpack hosts documents and task lists for smaller projects, and HighRise combines contact management with task accountability. In addition to using their software tools, some managers have discovered another way that the 37signals development team can help them achieve their goals. You can try out versions of Basecamp and Highrise for free; monthly plans beyond the free trial are actually quite affordable. Backpack is actually only available for current users at this writing. Campfire is also offered with business messaging options for you and your clients.

    In the first edition of their guide for web programmers, Getting Real, the team emphasized that a major reason for their success was their ability to embrace project constraints. Instead of worrying about finding venture capital for their web applications, the team simply focused on finding creative solutions to challenges. Likewise, the team’s desire to recruit and foster like-minded developers led them to overcome distance and time zone differences. Their philosophy of embracing project constraints can work for most project managers, even those who don’t develop software.

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    The Future of Getting Real

    The 37signals team has announced that they are working on a revision of the book that applies to project managers from all types of industries. Until then, the original edition of Getting Real is available as a download or as a trade paperback from their website.

Working with Project Constraints

In this five-part series, we examine three classic project constraints encountered by project management professionals, along with ways to turn them into strategic advantages.
  1. Working with Project Constraints - The PM Triangle
  2. Project Constraints: Scope
  3. Project Constraints: Time
  4. Project Constraints: Cost
  5. Getting Real With Project Constraints