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I’ve been corresponding with a fellow project manager in Russia following the Ukraine invasion and he mentioned that he hoped a book I am publishing would address the issue of this VUCCA world that we are living in. I’m very familiar with the VUCA world: volatility, uncertainty, chaos, and ambiguity. But I had not heard anyone add constraints to the acronym. Perhaps it’s unique to Russian project management?

All project managers should be focused on project constraints to ensure that they don’t doom your project.

I’ve written about the project management triangle, or triple constraint, and the need to balance critical project management constraints.

The first question that you likely need to wrestle with is what constitutes a constraint. Project constraints are the limitations on the project or the team. It may be money or time, or staffing constraints. The list goes on. There are different viewpoints on this subject.

I believe some constraints are a given part of project management, not necessarily the kinds of unusual factors that require special treatment. In this blog, I want to dig into the unique kinds of constraints that can impact your project. In other words, what are the specific cost, schedule, scope, or resource constraints that impact your project? Or are there other constraints? I’ll also briefly touch on the difference between constraints and assumptions, which are frequently lumped together, and the Theory of Constraints.

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#1 – Identify and document your unique project constraints

The point that I believe is important here is that we can’t assume that we know all the constraints, just because we know that we need to manage scope, costs, people, schedule, and a host of other factors. What I want you to think about are the unusual constraints that you might not have considered. These constraints are unique to your project or team. You’re going to have to dig a bit to unearth these.

If your project management software doesn’t have a designated space for constraints, pick a place to document them. It can be as simple as a Google or Excel spreadsheet. Just write them down, for now.

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#2 – Understand hidden implications of your project constraints

Once you have identified these unique constraints, analyze them to understand the ramifications of each constraint. Let’s take an example.

Suppose you are a roadbuilding company that has been hired to re-pave a major city street. How do you plan to schedule that work with the least disruption to neighbors and people who simply drive through that neighborhood on their way to work? There are multiple options, and I won’t dig into how to schedule the work.

I will suggest that you should consider whether there are businesses that have unique requirements that might impact you or might offer you a window of time when traffic flow is down. For example, suppose the road goes right near a school that periodically shuts down for breaks? That offers you a window of time when the disruption from your work can be lower.

#3 – Assign a person to follow unique project constraints

There are two viable ways to accomplish this, depending on the volume of unique constraints. The first way is to simply record these constraints as risks, in your risk register and manage them as you do your risks.

The second way is to assign someone on the team to be responsible for monitoring your outstanding constraints.

Three ways to keep project constraints from dooming your project. #projectmanagement #smartprojex #constraints Click To Tweet

Another example of a unique project constraint

Suppose you are the project manager for a project to decorate the wing of a retirement community. Think about your residents and the demands they place on flooring and furniture. You can’t just select commercial products that look good. They must function in the space. In other words, you are working under a constraint that any furniture or flooring products must be easily cleaned.

I’ve told the story before of the retirement community that installed fluffy white carpeting (commercial grade) in a retirement home lobby. They regretted that decision within 48 hours. Fortunately, they had a great lawyer.

What are project assumptions?

Constraints are factors that we know, or should know, that are limitations on our project and need to be considered. Assumptions are factors that we think are true, but which may or may not be true. They may well be limitations, or constraints, on your project if they are true. We need to identify our assumptions and test them. If they represent a risk or a constraint, then we should treat them appropriately.

What is the Theory of Constraints?

I mention this because constraints can be used as a management strategy to help streamline processes, manage the critical path of a project, and help identify project scope. In short, the Theory of Constraints is a management strategy. The premise behind TOC is that we need to identify the bottleneck in any process and manage the process by making sure that no other work keeps the bottleneck process from moving as quickly as it can. If you’d like to know more, without getting too technical, check out my book review on Eli Goldratt’s book, Critical Chain: A Business Novel.

For an example on how to use constraints to help identify scope, consider the above example on the retirement community, how might specific characteristics of the elderly population drive the selection of fabrics and furniture? Constraints can be quite helpful in narrowing your scope focus and helping you define exactly what you plan to do on the project. Take advantage of them. But don’t let them doom your project.

I mentioned a book that I am publishing. Check out Herding Smart Cats: Project Management Reimagined to learn more.