Do Not Stick to the Iron Triangle in Project Management

Do not stick to the Iron Triangle in Project Management. Only time proves the success of a project. Not the successful realization of the Triple Constraint (scope, time, cost… and quality), the famous Iron Triangle.

Consider the following two examples: the Boeing 737 MAX 8 project and the Sydney Opera House project.

The Boeing 737 MAX 8

The Boeing 737 MAX 8 was an initial project management success. The aircraft was delivered on schedule in May 2017 to catch up with its Airbus A320 NEO competitor. Sadly, this initial success was followed by a huge drawback with 2 crashes that killed 346 people. Since then, the aircraft are grounded, customers lost their trust, and Boeing loses several billions of $.

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Fig. 1 – Representation of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 Benefits

The Sydney Opera House

The Sydney Opera House project has been an initial failure. Budget increased from AU $7 million to AU $102 million. The delivery was 10 years behind schedule. This project became a study in the domain of project failure. Who remembers the name of the architect, the Dane Jørn Utzon? The overrun on the Opera House, and the controversy that followed, destroyed Utzon’s career and kept him from building more masterpieces. He had even to leave Australia and the Opera House, in the middle of construction and never returned. Yet the Opera House is today a worldwide attraction for millions of tourists and a major success for Australia. the Australian government even recouped the massive cost after only two years. More than 8.2 million people from Australia and around the world visit it each year and some 300,000 people take part in guided tours. Isn’t it a huge success?

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Fig. 2 – Representation of the Sydney Opera House Benefits

Key Takeaways

What you want in reality is sustainable success, not costs, schedule or scope. Here are my three takeaways:

  • Quality (the “fourth dimension” of the Iron Triangle) must be the priority one. The Sydney Opera House is a superb iconic building that sooner or later would deserve its rewards. Performance was maybe bounded (by its Triple Constraint overrun), yet its success is unbounded[1].
  • The Iron Triangle is nothing more than an excessive set of constraints. Ease them to make sure that you achieve the right “quality”, that is what the users will get from your project. A few more months and redundant systems would have cost more than initially forecasted by Boeing, yet much less than the costs incurred by the tragedies of the crashes.
  • Above all, replace the efforts you devote to the Triple Constraint by efforts to reduce the fragilities of your project. A fragility is anything that does not like uncertainty, volatility, disorder, or time[2]. Never focus too much on efficiency alone. For example, imitate human bodies that reduce their fragility thanks to redundant eyes, lungs or kidneys.  

Do you agree?


Philippe Husser

The article is inspired from the 5th version of my book The High-Impact PMO, Why and how agile project management officers deliver value in a complex world” that you can buy on Amazon

Or read my most successful articles here:

High-Impact PMO

[1] Read L. Barabasi, The Formula

[2] Read N. Taleb, Incerto

The image of the Syndey Opera House is from Patty Jansen, Pixabay


Why and How PMOs Should Be “Ahead of the Wave”

PMOs should stay “ahead of the wave”. Only then can they provide the support one expects from them to make a strategy and its vital initiatives and projects a success.

I remember the time I took a PMO role in a great marketing team. I came with methods and tools that succeeded in information systems. Yet they simply did not work there. This marketing function was very advanced and effective. People cooperated closely with innovation teams and many others, especially customers all over the world. They all prepared the future. And they needed a very specific support from me, a support I was not prepared at this time to give. My mission ended rapidly…

I became later the PMO of a variety of large and complex transformation programs. I learned there that complex systems develop more through the interactions between their components than through these mere components. I also detected that living systems cannot be reduced to underlying laws of traditional “scientific” project management. Complex systems generate novel and coherent structures, emerging patterns and properties, during self-organizing processes. They are an exciting playground for innovative PMOs.

Therefore, I decided to spend the rest of my life to study and learn how to stay “ahead of the wave” and to support more effectively strategy, portfolio, and program execution.

A strategy prepares an organization to move successfully into a sustainable future. It requires advanced portfolio and project leadership. An effective PMO contributes to this leadership by staying “ahead of the wave”.

My message today: You stay “ahead of the wave” when you complement the fundamentals of the capability (technical, business and strategy, leadership) triangle with studying, learning, and exploring three domains: complexity sciences, innovative strategies, and human dynamics.

Complexity Sciences open new perspectives to project practioners. They explore nonlinearities, acceleration in dissipative systems, or unpredictability. They explore emergence, phase transitions, and avalanches. They compare system resilience and efficiency, order and lack of order. Yet these are only a few domains that challenge complex projects.

Innovative Strategies challenge direct routes and develop more roundabout approaches. They introduce multimodal strategies with a mix of high-risk low-probability events and low-risk high-probability events. Power laws, fat tails, and optionality are their domain of predilection.  They compare intertemporal approaches with temporal ones.

Human Dynamics go well beyond traditional leadership. Human Dynamics deal with extended social sciences, both hard (like social network analysis for example) and soft (like cultural understanding for example). What are the social structures, cultures, languages, behaviors, influence networks concerned by a project? What is the Procrustean bias? Why buddy systems are so powerful? How do synergies and antagonisms play a role? Do you need an enemy to succeed?

Yes, my message today is: project practioners, and especially PMOs, stay “ahead of the wave”.

To your continued success


High-Impact PMO

Become an Agile High Impact PMO in a Complex World

This article reviews how you can become an agile high impact PMO in a complex world. It is the new version of an article I wrote July, 24 on LinkedIn and that got some success. It takes now into account the numerous comments I have received from LinkedIn members since then. It is part of a book: “The High-Impact PMO, How Can Agile PMO Deliver Value in a Complex World” I have published in October 2017, revised in August 2018 and that is available on Amazon.

High-Impact PMO

The Black Label Burger Bottom Bun

Did you ever ask yourself why burgers had a bun as a foundation?

There is an excellent reason revealed by two friends, Johann and Blandine. That was a sunny and cool autumn day in New York. Both were enjoying a lunch together at Minetta Tavern where they ate Black Label Burgers. Both Blandine and Johann were working at a well-known Aerospace business where Blandine served as Director of a Transformation Program and her good friend Johann was a Business Unit Project Management Officer (PMO). They inquisitively pondered the question of the burger’s foundation and compared the burger and its bun to a project and its PMO.

They found that the bottom bun, like a PMO, was the most important part required to eat the burger properly or in the case of PMO, to manage a project successfully. They shared the conviction that PMOs were the indispensable foundation of any complex project, program, or portfolio and without them; a high quality experience would be lost.

Some projects taste better than others. Some PMOs deliver a higher impact than others. Yet, they imagined what the burger would be without the indispensable component compared to what a project would be without a PMO. The picture on top of this article visualizes what Blandine and Johann had in mind. On top are stakeholders like sponsors, customers, or product owners. In-between are project teams, project managers, and all sorts of contributing stakeholders. The bottom bun is the PMO.

The PMO Challenge

If the PMO is such a critical element of any project, program, or portfolio’s success, why are they so often considered small players and low value added actors?

Several recent surveys found that PMOs were often considered “paper tigers” because of their apparent lack of recognized contribution to a project success, other than being administrative assistants to the project leader. Their fundamental and indispensable influence on project outputs (products, services, and any other result like The Great Wall of China or a book published) and outcomes (benefits and value provided to the sponsor and all other beneficiaries, like the reinforcement of a strategic position or great sales of a published book) is too often ignored.

Nevertheless, like in the case of Black Label Burgers, complex projects or portfolios of projects have a greater chance of being successful when their mix of components is supported by a PMO capable of navigating complexity. A great PMO is the number one key success factor of any large and complex endeavor.

PMOs and Complexity

Blandine and Johann had a conviction that originated in their long career in project management and in their deep understanding of the challenges project managers and PMOs face every day.

This conviction is that the primary challenge in project management comes from the characteristics of complexity all projects, programs, and portfolios show. Complexity has many sources. Among these sources are three fundamental characteristics that make an endeavor complex:

· The high number of variables involved. Just think of the number of stakeholders, within and outside an organization, that are working on a large project.

· The nonlinearity of the interactions between these variables. Have you ever accelerated by two a project by putting twice as many team members?

· The irreversibility of phenomena within complex systems. When a project roadmap has been implemented in an organization and then stopped because of its failure to achieve the intended results, can the organization really go back to its initial state before the project launch?

Blandine and Johann know intuitively that the role of a PMO needs to be elevated and developed to navigate this complexity. The search for agility in project management is a favorable move. However, this is still largely insufficient to confront the complexity of our world, complexity that requires a real openness to the immense variety of this world.

PMOs capable of putting in place innovative processes, tools, and competencies adapted to our Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (VUCA) environment not only allow projects, programs, and portfolios to better deliver promised benefits, but also are recognized as High-Impact PMOs by peers, managers, and generally speaking all stakeholders.

The High-Impact PMO

Project, program, and portfolio management capabilities are often structured around three domains: the domain of Technical knowledge in project management, the domain of Leadership, and the domain of Strategic and Business management. These domains are what everyone needs to master in order to have a chance to manage successful projects.

However, these traditional capabilities obviously do not suffice to make every project successful in a VUCA environment.

The book The High-Impact PMO, How Agile Project Management Offices Deliver Value in a Complex World proposes to explore innovative practices that can be grouped in three domains of knowledge, which I believe should be taught in the project management world.

These three domains are the following:

· The domain of Complexity Sciences.

· The domain of Indirect Strategies.

· The domain of Human Dynamics.

Complexity Sciences complement what you already practice in the Technical project management domain. Indirect Strategies complement what you already practice in the Strategic and Business management domain. Human Dynamics complement what you already practice in the Leadership domain.

Once studied and learned, these domains make you much more comfortable in navigating complexity. They offer you two benefits. As a first benefit, you become more than ever able to deliver an impact in your projects, programs, and portfolios. As a second benefit, you also become more than ever recognized as an indispensable buddy to any large complex project team. In the end, you will especially love to be a PMO, a High-Impact PMO, and a recognized value-adding PMO.

Philippe Husser

October 12, 2017


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