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Project Management Constraints

9. Constraints

There is no question that all projects have their difficulties, but what tends to be the most problematic? If you were to ask any seasoned project manager about the most challenging aspect of project management, your are likely to get something along the lines of “managing the constraints”.

As a project manager, you need to understand that a major part of your effort is going to go into managing constraints. Constraints in general will likely influence the way you manage your project, and in some cases, can have a considerable impact on the success of your project.

So what actually are they? In simple terms, a project constraint is a restriction that limits a projects desired outcome. Consider a projects scope for example, this is a limit on what the project is expected to accomplish.

As constraints restrict project options and can result in severe trade offs, they require careful consideration. Let’s now look at some common constraints, as understanding these will allow you to pick them out in your next project and better deal with them.

Typical Project Constraints

The project management triangleconstraints project management triangleIt is likely that you have come across the “Project Management” or “Triple Constraint” triangle at some point in your project management journey. This triangle outlines the three base constraints that are at play in any project. If you think about, all three of these constraints pair with a project manager’s overall goal when delivering a project:

  • On or under budget
  • On time; and
  • As per the agreed scope


Scope is concerned with your project itself. What do you have to do? What are your tasks? What goals need to be accomplished? A scope is often fully refined before your project begins and is understood by all stakeholders to avoid future issues. You must determine the time and cost required to fulfill the demands of this scope, but sometimes it can change. You can experience scope creep during the project If the client changes their minds about what they want. If not managed properly, either the time or costs has to budge.


Everything takes time. Each task, each meeting, each process. How long these take can vary, but a primary determinant is the number and expertise of resources assigned to them (your costs). The amount of time you need is ultimately determined by a projects scope. By implementing a project management plan you can ensure a projects scope is fully outlined and an informed timeline is created. By completing a project schedule or time management plan you can help to ensure you are on task. At the end of the day, your ultimate time goal is to meet the deadline.


The cost of a project is explicitly tied to scope. A client will give you a budget, and it is your job in the project management planning process to work out if it is doable. It is only on the very rare occasion that a budget changes during a project, so making sure you have this right is paramount. At the end of the day, you have to get done what was promised but on the budget that was agreed upon.


With quality comes cost. If you client has a certain expectations or quality requirements, this will affect the project cost constraint directly. If this is known, your projects costs should reflect this accurately.


The likes of tools, equipment, software, and materials that will be used during are project are considered project resources, and project team members are considered human resources, and both are project constraints respectively. Effectively these cover who and what is needed to complete your project.

The resources available to you will determine what and when things can be completed. For example, a lack of skilled team members will likely drag out times, or a new software requirement will increase cost and require time to learn.


  • Customer satisfaction
    Customer satisfaction is paramount. In terms of you business’ success, ensuring your client is happy will  help lead to a sustainable and long running business. After all, business in its simplest sense is customer centric. They are a business’ main source of income, and if you don’t satisfy your customers you jeopardize that.
  • Risk tolerance
    The amount of risk that your sponsor is willing to take on.
  • Business / organisation
    Business constraints include anything that the business can't change that affects a project. For example, a business may have commitments to partners or customers that can’t be overlooked.
  • Due diligence
    Due diligence is the level of care, judgement and investigation that can be reasonably expected of you and your business. As due diligence is in most cases a legal requirement or professional ethic, it generally can't be overlooked to speed up a process.
  • Infrastructure
    The use of existing infrastructure that carries with it constraints. For example, old computer hardware will have speed and functionality limits.
  • Legal
    Laws, regulations or agreements that restrict your project options, and determine the legal environment in which your project must operate.
  • Project Management Methodology
    The imposed requirement to use a particular approach within your project such as a specific project management methodology. More on that here.
  • Physical
    A physical constraint such as the size of land available to build a property, or size of warehouse space to hold your stock.
  • Procurement
    Procurement practices, procedures or processes that must be followed when delivering your project.
  • Technical
    An imposed technology constraint that is beyond your control, such as a particular platform your client wants you to build their website on. A lack of knowledge on new technology, training needs etc. may also be associated with this.

constraints on computer

Constraints vs. Assumptions vs. Risks:

When it comes to project management, you will often hear the terms constraints, assumptions and risks being thrown about on a regular basis. Although often banded together, it is important to note that they are not the same thing. So how do they differ? We already know what constraints are, so let’s look a little deeper into the remaining terms.


We would all have heard at some point in our careers that assumptions are bad. We shouldn’t assume because it makes an “ass out of u and me.” But the truth is, assumptions need to be made in certain circumstances due to incomplete information or the need to keep things moving. So what are they? In simple terms, assumptions are factors that we believe to be true, although they are not confirmed to be true.

In fact, we make assumptions everyday. Consider when you woke up this morning. The time you left for work would be a calculation based on your assumptions on what the traffic would be like and what stops you would need to take along the way. Naturally, there is always the risk that you get to late work because perhaps the traffic was worse than you assumed or you didn't realise you needed to stop for petrol.

Assumptions add risk to a project as it is possible they will turn out to be false. If no risk is involved, you aren’t dealing with an assumption. Obviously, the more informed the assumption the better, but we are still playing with unknowns, so dome degree of risk will still exist. Assumptions can end up impacting any point in your project, so it is important to document and analyse them.


Risks aren't restricted to just assumptions. By definition, a project risk is an uncertain event or condition that, if it occurs, has an affect on at least one project objective. With assumptions, we will have some idea of the risk that results if they are not proved true and whether these will be positive or negative. However, other risks may come out of nowhere.

This is where risk managements is key. As part of the project management plan, risk management provide the opportunity to think about and document all foreseeable risks and potential problems. Obviously unknowns can be missed, but risk management also allows you to put in place preventative measure to manage, contain and reduce the risks that you are familiar with, helping to keep your project on track.

How to constraints differ from assumptions and risks?

When we deal with constraints, we are dealing with fixed conditions or limits on what we can and cannot do in a projects. We explicitly know what they are. When we deal with risks and assumptions, to a certain extent we are dealing with the unknown. We may not no a risk exists until it occurs during a project, we may know one exists but we don't know when or if it will appear, or we may be confident in our assumptions but we don’t know if or when we will be proved wrong.

The important thing to realise here is that the resulting effect of all of these can be mitigated with proper planning and preparation. Obviously planning for what we know is a little easier, such as constraints, but if you have thoroughly documented and analysed these throughout previous projects you will be well informed. You will know what impact they have on a project, where they might appear, and suitable strategies to deal with these.

How project constraints impact a project:

We now know what project constraints are, but how do they really impact our projects? Let’s look at a couple of examples, but before we start there is one thing we need to understand. Project constraints are generally considered as somewhat mutually exclusive. Let’s use the project management triangle as an example, it is assumed that making a change to one constraint will affect one or both of the others, a trade-off if you will. For example, increasing the scope of the project is likely to require more time and money. Let’s look at some more examples:

1. Building and construction

Halfway through the construction of a residential apartment building, an unexpected budget cut is imposed on your project by the developers after unfavourable conditions become apparent in the housing market.

Impact: Scope is cut, quality is reduced, and the schedule is pushed back so that cheaper resources can be found. The most significant constraint in this case is the cost (the money the developers are willing to spend).

2. IT services

During a software development project, your customer increases the scope. The client asks for additional features to added to the software after learning about what a competitor has on offer. The additional features are necessary in order to compete.

Impact: The budget and schedule increase as a result of pushing up the final delivery date. More people are added to minimise disruption to the project schedule, thereby increasing the project's overall cost. The most significant constraint in this case is scope (features of the software).

3. Creative Agencies

During a project to create a new product brand, your client as that the launch date is brought forward two weeks to coincide with a major industry show that is approaching and they want to launch their new product to the public.

Impact: Costs increase as more people are added to meet the new deadline. Certain marketing collateral that was being generated in conjunction with the brand are postponed to reduce delivery time and meet the new lunch date. The most significant constraint in this case is time (project schedule).

In each of these cases it is the project manager the needs to re-balance the other factors to deal with the new project constraint and keep the customer happy. As we can see, the old adage that you can only pick two from fast, cheap, or good holds true.  Known as the “pick two’ principle, when given three desired qualities or expectations, it is likely only two can co-exist. In most cases, a project manager will be responsible for weighing one constraint against another to reach the best result.

constraints team work

How to manage project constraints:

First things first, it is important to understand that constraints will always exist. Each project you have will inevitably be a little different, so they constraints that you face will also not remain constant. The key to managing your project constraints and having a successful project is transparency.

To achieve transparency, every project team members and stakeholders should be kept informed, priorities should be set, and everybody should fully understand the project objectives. This is particularly important for managing high level constraints such as organisational culture, stakeholder buy in etc., any constraint that is at the human level.

For resource based constraints, official steps and processes to manage these are a little more explicit. For instances where constraints such as cost, resources, time, and scope need to be wrangled in, consider implementing some of the following techniques:

  • Utilise critical chain project management to track aggressive schedules and managing highly skilled and high-price resources. More on that here.
  • Reduce the number of tasks assigned to each team member to reduce costs or speed up the process (if additional staff are added).
  • Leverage project resources that may be underutilised.
  • Focus only on critical tasks by scheduling independent tasks for a later date.
  • Adopt an aggressive ‘task completion’ approach as opposed to ‘timeline focused’ approach.
  • Limit or eliminate multitasking so that effort is focussed.
  • Build buffers into in your schedule and project management plan to give you some form of contingency. This means that is constraints do come into effect, time, cost and scope can still be successfully managed.

Through understanding where your project can and cannot “bend”, preparing for constraints accordingly, and actively monitoring and acting upon them, you will be better informed to make the right decisions and a deliver a successful project.  


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Managing Project Constraints
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