Every project has a crippling constraint

The saying goes: ‘Want to make a good laugh, tell them about your plans.’
The saying reminds us of the crude reality that projects are all about future; future is all about uncertainties.

We, as project managers have one bounden duty. It is to manage uncertainties in the best possible manner to realize the client’s expectations. Uncertainties are largely a byproduct of project constraints. In a utopian world of abundance, one may think, that project management could not be that challenging. But our experience always testifies to the contrary.

The fact, though bitter, stands out: constraints of this or that nature is part and parcel of project life. If you expect a better world, project management would not be a consideration for you.

It is not just opinion. There is science. In any given situation, which is dependent on several factors, one or the other is always a limiting factor. In a project this limiting factor can prop up here or there, sooner or later, internally or externally and as foreseen or quite unexpectedly. It could be technical, resource or physical. Project managers who do not pay heed to this reality, are bound to suffer miserably.

Project delays are the most remarkable consequence of ‘constraints’.

Project constraints mostly stem from uncertainties. The best way that we have learned to deal with uncertainties is to forecast and estimate. We have complicated methods of doing them. Computer assisted systems, at times, make us blind to the fact that none of these sophisticated methods is completely error free. In forecasting, we project the future based on intelligence gathered in retrospect. But circumstances are changing so fast that making an accurate predictions about the future is project manager’s nightmare.

Here comes the concept of constraints. In fast changing economic, technological and political world, the best estimates may prove to be useless. Fluctuations in prices, exchange rates and level of inflation do not warrant correct estimation. Change in any of them will become a limiting factor or a constraint.

Another set of constraints operates at a project scope level.  Most of the constraints and paralysing problems about project scope have their roots in sheer miscommunication. It’s a well known fact that project specifications are developed through a series of discussions between two widely different parties in terms of technical knowledge. The client, on one hand, has little technical knowledge about project management. The project manager, on the other hand, has got the technical expertise. The client has expectations. These expectations are tangible results he needs. In defining these results of project outputs, the client may have a vague idea which will be difficult to translate into realistic goals at once. The client could also have some expectations far beyond the technology and other resources may permit the project team to realize. The worse may be that, the project manager preoccupied with some technical complexities is totally out of the picture. Finally, project scope could be two different things to the main two parties involved. They may think that everything is alright, until the crippling moment comes. That is how ill-defined project scopes can become a deadly constraint. The client may have to think completely new and the project manager will have to sacrifice lot of effort and time.

Project are not closed systems. They are open systems that communicate with the external entities and numerous exchanges happen with the external environment. Most visible of those exchanges are material and information exchanges that are crucial to project implementation and operations.

These exchanges represent points where potential constraints may arise sooner or later. Suppliers, subcontractors and other partners can all experience problems and they can surface as irreparable constraints causing delays in project accomplishment. In my project management life, I have not always been fortunate to see suppliers who kept their commitments as agreed. Delays in material deliveries, supply of substandard materials and resulting compensatory procedures all have the potential to adversely affect projects.

External environment is uncertain and precarious. Things can happen quite unexpectedly. Economic, political, regulatory and technological factors change fast and unpredictably. They all contribute their share as project constraints.

So in the final analysis, even if you have a dream team working on the project, the environment is phenomenal, have sufficient budget and tools you need, there is still going to be a constraint. You are supposed to keep an open eye to this fact as project managers.