John Dunford: Good/Cheap/Fast - pick your two

How trading off your priorities makes for better digital projects

John Dunford
John Dunford

Running charity digital projects is a challenging experience. You’re short on time, resources, and you need to deliver results. That’s a tough equation to balance and choices have to be made. How do you begin to make sense of it?

There’s a simple thought experiment you can run to help work this out and it’s called the Project Management Triangle and it can help you get better results whatever you’re working on. It starts with accepting you just can’t have it all.

pie chart
Imagine there are three key qualities that you want from your digital project: it should be good, delivered fast, and cheap. These points make up the triangle and you have to pick one side. That means there there’s always a trade off and you have a tough choice to make:

Cheap + fast = lower quality work

Fast + good = expensive

Good + cheap = brilliant developers are busy people, if they’re cheap as well then you better get in line

It’s really not very fair but it’s a closed system and barring a miracle, you just can’t have all three.

The key to handling the Project Management Triangle here is to be clear at the start. If you know what your project really needs and what you can put into it then this thought exercise will help you deliver on realistic goals rather than setting yourself up for an inevitable failure.

Using the Project Management Triangle doesn’t mean entirely giving up on getting all you need from a project however. In fact, with a little preplanning, there are a few things you can do to try to bend the triangle a little out of shape:

You need your project to happen faster

  • Be crystal clear on what you want to achieve and try to avoid unnecessary rebriefing which adds delays

  • Fail quickly. Doing a little and learning from that step saves time compared to doing a lot, making bigger mistakes and having to redo more

  • What is the minimal viable product (MVP) you can build? What functionality do you absolutely have to have and what could be lost? Be ruthless

You need your project to be cheaper

Note: this still applies even if you have an inhouse tech team because there are costs with any project whether that’s opportunities passed up or just basic social capital.

  • Plan as far ahead as you can and then use the ability to schedule work with a long lead time this as leverage

  • Look at making a long term financial arrangement with your developers and use that to get better rates

  • Ask your tech partner how they would meet your goal (not your brief) with your budget and find out how they would d tackle this problem

You need your project to be better

  • Invest heavily in planning. Get completely clear on your user needs and the value you’re creating and then plan from there. Small uncertainties at the concept stage will reduce quality during delivery

  • Be clear with your developers why you’re doing this project so they know your aims too and can advise

  • Then ask their advice. There can often be an easier way to do what you’ve outlined using systems you’re not familiar with. If you’re working with experts, then use them for their knowledge not just skills in delivery

Whatever barriers you are facing, you can always make your project faster, cheaper and better but you can only ever have two points of the triangle as descriptions of your project at once. Rather than aiming for the impossible and falling short, starting a project with this knowledge will let you work smarter and deliver more.

John Dunford is campaigns lead at The Developer Society and one of Third Sector's Fundraisers: the New Generation 2018 winners


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