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Time: the bright side of the iron triangle

Adeline Teoh ed.
January 27, 2012

There’s a lot to be said of timing it right. In fields like comedy, music and sport, timing is of the essence and can be the difference between a well-told joke and a flop, a vigorous interpretation of a score or a lacklustre performance, a six smashed onto the roof of the Adelaide Oval or the batsman caught behind (sorry, distracted with the cricket).

Time is one side of the so-called project management ‘iron triangle’ by which the success of a project is superficially measured. Cost and quality complete the trio. It’s interesting to see time elevated to the same level as the other constraints when it is the most predictable but the least manageable of the three.

Most predictable? Well, time as a human construct has 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day for the length of the project until such time as you’ve forgotten what day it is—or how old your kids are. And try as you might, no matter how organised or how productive you are, a day will always have 24 hours in it, which makes it the least manageable of the three constraints.

Culturally too, you will see that there is a broad scale of attitudes towards the importance of managing time that centres on adherence to schedules and deadlines.

In Managing Across Cultures*, a book I highly recommend if you work with international stakeholders, the authors put Germans on one end as they are generally strict about punctuality and have a preference for projects to run like clockwork. On the other end are Thais, who view time as an element that cannot be controlled and therefore treat schedules as a guide that serves people rather than the other way around.

At the risk of fence-sitting, I don’t think either attitude is completely right or completely wrong. Deadlines serve a purpose and if we were lax with them we’d have no Olympic Games, New Year’s fireworks or events of any kind. But the Thai view that schedules serve people is also a key one; good project management is more than the iron triangle.

The most inclusive view is to treat project schedules as living documents. You can distort concepts of time to suit your other resources, but time itself will march on. This means what the iron triangle really measures is not time, cost and quality but the ability of your project schedule, budget and scope to meet the expectations you set at the start.

An interesting take on this is Pat Weaver’s recent article, The truth about Gantt charts. Think you know what a Gantt chart is? Think again. Henry Gantt was a smart guy, but he didn’t invent the bar chart that bears his name. He did, however, work out a way to track progress and therefore give a better understanding of how long things took to get done. Which is good information if you want to look into estimation and productivity.

So don’t look at time as something you can control; it’s only your own timing you have the power to alter.

* Managing Across Cultures by Charlene M Solomon and Michael S Schell (McGraw-Hill, 2009)

Adeline Teoh ed.
Adeline Teoh is the editor of She has more than a decade of publishing experience in the fields of business and education, and has specialised in writing about project management since 2007.
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One thought on “Time: the bright side of the iron triangle

  1. Time – never to be re-gained. The “iron triangle” sets the scene to make decisions on what is the most important aspect – you can only ever satisfy two of these requirements. One will always be sacrificed! And, because time can never be regained we normally blow the cost (throw more resources at the schedule – to gain time) or sacrifice the quality – only do what is necessary. This is what makes the PM earn the money.

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