For many years, the iron triangle has been used by project managers to coordinate and ensure the quality delivery of products by focusing on cost, scope, and schedule. However, with the rapid changes in technology in the modern age, the iron triangle has failed in product development due to its lack of consideration of other relevant factors such as quality, value, risk, dependencies, and obstacles. Because of this, many companies now use the "agile triangle” instead.
The agile triangle of product development focuses on delivering products of high quality using a simple work process while accommodating the rapid changes of the technological world. Where the iron triangle emphasizes cost, scope, and schedule, the agile triangle takes a broader focus on quality (intrinsic quality), value (extrinsic quality), and constraints (cost, scope, and schedule). Here, while constraints are still a factor in measuring the success of a project, they are not the defining goal.
There is a divergence in these two methods of product development in terms of their fundamental assumptions, as well as the organizational structure, management style, roles, and responsibilities typically associated with each. These differences have become a major challenge in product development. For instance, an agile team can be working to meet certain goals, while managers are measuring their performance using a different set of objectives.
Jim Highsmith, pioneer of the agile triangle, stated, “Many agile teams are now caught in a dilemma. On one hand, they are told to be agile, flexible, and adaptable, but on the other, they are told to conform to the pre-planned traditional iron triangle framework of scope, schedule, and cost.”
In this article, you’ll learn more about the iron and agile triangles, with a specific emphasis on the role of the agile triangle in the world of product development.
The Iron Triangle
In every project management class, one of the first things students learn is the iron triangle, which teaches that a project’s cost, scope, and time are interdependent. These constraints have been the heart of measuring success in project management for decades.
Cost refers to the budget allocated to a project. It includes financial resources as well as the manpower required (in software development) to deliver a product within a prearranged scope. If a project’s budget decreases, the scope of the project will also decrease, as some features will be removed or adjusted so that the project can be accommodated within the new cost. Furthermore, the timeline in which the product is to be delivered will increase due to the financial restraints upon the available labor force. Naturally, this may also impact product quality.
The scope of a project describes the boundaries that a project must deliver upon. It covers all the planned features to be implemented, as well as the processes required to implement those features.
Scope may refer to either the scope of the project or the scope of the product. Product scope covers the features and functionalities of the product itself, while project scope covers the process required to deliver the product with the specified features and functionalities.
Scope has a direct effect on the cost, schedule, and quality of a product. If the scope of the project goes up, the resources required to deliver such a product will follow, also driving costs up. For example, in software development, if more features are to be added to a project, the resources required to hire a developer with the required skill set will increase, as well as the time required to add these features.
A project manager’s numerous responsibilities include the all-important duty of ensuring that a product is completed within the stipulated time frame. Answering questions like “Is the product ready for launch?” or “When will it be ready?” is key to their role.
As you’ve seen, changing any of the constraints in an iron triangle project will have a significant impact on the other constraints. For example, if you alter the timeline of a project by limiting it, then the scope of the project will probably decrease, and employees will need to work overtime to meet the new deadline. This often results in worn-out team members and may ultimately affect the quality of the product. The cost of the project will also be impacted, as you may need to increase the number of people and resources required to finish it.
In the middle of the iron triangle is quality. All the aforementioned constraints contribute to the overall quality of a product in an interrelated fashion.
If the cost of a project is minimal, the quality of such a product will be affected greatly due to scarce resources. If the time for a project is limited, some features may have to be removed from the scope, and the labor force will be limited, meaning that employees may need to work extra time within the provided budget, which often results in burnout and/or a poor product. Finally, if the project has a large scope, the product will have more features and functionalities; however, this will translate to higher costs and increase the time required to deliver the product.
Limitations of the Iron Triangle
Despite the iron triangle’s long-standing use, it has some limitations. For instance, a project of good quality can be completed within the stipulated budget and time but can still fail to meet the customer’s satisfaction or result in employee burnout. A project otherwise on track may also be derailed by new government regulations, industry standards, or stakeholders’ demands, thus altering its progression.
To overcome these limitations, a new methodology for product development was developed to measure the success of a project from a broader perspective that takes customer satisfaction and a variety of other factors into account.
The Agile Triangle
With the rapid wave of innovations characteristic of the world of technology, a number of industries and projects have shifted to a new framework that better allows them to respond to client feedback and the ever-evolving changes in product requirements, regulations, and industry standards.
The agile triangle focuses on quality (intrinsic quality), value (extrinsic quality), and constraints (cost, scope, and schedule) as a measure for product development. Designed based on the Agile methodology, it considers these three factors while also emphasizing collaboration between project stakeholders and focusing on the business value of the product.
The quality of an agile project involves reliability, continuous delivery of value to customers, and product adaptability. With the agile triangle, the success of a project is measured not in terms of scope, schedule, and cost alone but also in terms of how reliable the product is, the product’s ability to adapt to new regulations, and changes in customers’ desires.
Under the agile triangle, value refers to what the project stakeholders expect and want from the project, with a focus on delivering a releasable and usable product. The agile triangle uses feedback as one of its tools to measure the success of a project and to improve future releases. Although measuring the success of a project using quality and value is not an easy task, it gives you the best insight to evaluate the success of your product.
These are the traditional scope, schedule, and cost found in the iron triangle. The agile triangle prioritizes releasing value and quality to users, while constraints are used to help define project timelines and schedules. Jim Highsight suggested that “value and quality are the goals and constraints may be adjusted as the project moves forward to increase value.”
Collaboration is vital in any agile project because it ensures that all project stakeholders are updated with the project’s progress and that the development team is informed about new requirements. Stakeholders collaborate with the development team to ensure that the product is on the right track, the product-development team interacts with users/owners who provide feedback about the product, and lastly, the development team collaborates with one another to address any challenges a team member may be facing.
Focus on Business Value
One of the fundamental principles of the agile manifesto is that the “highest priority is to satisfy the customer.” To ensure that your organization abides by this principle, product owners must clearly define what the desired business outcome is and constantly communicate the new requirements to the development team. Also, as the Agile methodology focuses on customers and product users, it is important to obtain feedback from customers and make changes accordingly, reassessing the product using a feedback loop at each iteration.
The Agile Triangle’s Role in Product Development
As you’ve seen, the iron triangle is built upon the triple constraints of time, cost, and scope, and a change in any of these constraints will force a change in at least one of the others. Under this methodology, the scope is typically fixed at the start of a project, while time and cost can be adjusted to meet an acceptable plan. However, during a project’s lifecycle, the scope can change due to emerging technology, new regulations, change in customers’ taste or desires, and so on.
At the beginning of a software project, you may outline your project scope to cover all the features you want, while new government regulations may later require you to adjust the scope to capture this regulation. This can translate into an increased cost to hire the labor force required to implement these new changes and also an increased project time, ultimately resulting in cost overrun and late product delivery.
The agile triangle uses a different approach. It sets time (iterations) and cost (team members) as fixed pieces, while the scope remains variable to adapt and evolve to changing expectations over time. This provides plenty of room for new customer feedback, new government regulations, and emerging industry standards to be captured within the budgeted cost and time. Essentially, the agile triangle allows the scope to vary because you cannot know everything about the project at its inception; your scope will continue to change as you learn more about the project.
How Constraints (Cost, Scope, and Schedule) Impact the Value and Quality of the Product
Naturally, the scope of your project plays an important role in the value you deliver to your stakeholders. The agile triangle allows you to start with a tiny scope and increment after every iteration until you run out of time and budget (cost). By doing so, you deliver a working product at the end of each interaction. Here, value is the ultimate goal, and the project constraints may need to change as the project progresses in order for you to increase product value. You can make your schedule (iterations) fixed but may continually adjust the scope to deliver the highest value.
One of the multibillion dollar companies to have successfully used this methodology is Motorola. Using its MOTOTRBO Nitro program as an experiment, the development team was reorganized, new team members were hired and trained based on the Agile methodology, and all traditional bottlenecks were cleared. During this experiment, Motorola observed that in the traditional iron triangle method, development teams were consumed with processes (schedule) such as regimented product-release timelines and paid less attention to the value of the project.
However, Motorola found greater success using the agile triangle. John Kedzierski, a senior vice president of video security solutions at Motorola, said that they “adopted leading practices and gleaned a number of important lessons along the way.” Some of these lessons, as extracted from a Wall Street Journal publication about the experiment, included the following findings:
- It is easier to implement such changes in methodology with a new program, as new programs don’t have revenues, expectations, or customer preferences already associated with them.
- While teams can have the desire to change from time-consuming legacy processes, many find it challenging to do so even when given permission.
- The agile triangle methodology requires constant communication, as well as less focus on what the organization is going to do—such as a product launch on a certain date—and more attention on development, testing, and upgrades, thus adding more value to the product.
- Better products are created when the developers writing the code and designing the hardware are involved in the decision-making process.
These findings demonstrate that the team was able to better focus on creating products that deliver value to customers by cutting down on time spent in legacy processes. With developers being part of the decision-making process, proper technical attention was given to the scope of the project, ultimately leading to the development of better products and increased customer value.
One of the early tools used for product development is the iron triangle, which focuses on cost, scope, and schedule to measure the success of a project. However, this method has failed in product development over time, causing project managers, organizations, and researchers to look for a better alternative. This gave birth to the agile triangle, which instead emphasizes quality, value, and constraints to measure the success of a project.
In this article, you learned about the iron triangle and its limitations, as well as the agile triangle and its role in product development. By using the right tools and measurements, your development team can deliver quality and valuable products that meet customer expectations and save on cost.
Be sure to check out Status Hero, an agile management tool that can help your team work more effectively. Status Hero enables you to replace the time-consuming meetings typical of traditional project management with efficient and insightful reports that allow you to gather a clear understanding of accomplishments and blockers across your organization. To learn more, sign up for a free trial or take a tour today.