I am currently teaching a course in the Mohawk College and CARA Research Administration Certificate program. As part of this, I’ve been writing essays around each week’s discussion topic, in response to the discussions and reflections by the students. The first of these is on the topic of the driving priority in management of the project.
Typically, projects consider the triple constraint (or Iron Triangle), with scope, time, and cost as constraints and quality as the theme or consequence of these constraints. Any change in one constraint will cause or require a change in one or more of the others in order to maintain project quality. In this approach, project management would designate two of scope, time or cost as the driving priorities – the elements that can withstand the least amount of change in order to preserve product quality and project outcomes. This is sometimes described as the “good, fast, cheap – pick two” approach to project management.
In research project management, I have found that it is effective to consider scope, time, cost, and quality as all being constrained and therefore all equal in importance. This model (sometimes known as the Diamond Model) considers that quality has equal potential to be a priority for managing the project, and has a direct relationship with scope, time and cost. In research projects, sometimes quality is defined as the most important element, and all other elements must be adjusted to maintain the quality of the work and the product.
In this model, all four elements are important and need to be balanced like the legs of a chair or a juggler's props. A change to any one element REQUIRES changes to others in order to keep the project in balance. All elements have competing but complementary demands, constraints, assumptions, and risks.
The scope-time-cost-quality balance then helps us determine the driving priority for managing the project. Of the four elements, which is THE most important to remain unchanged throughout the project. For example, is there a fixed deadline for completion of the project? This can be the case when the deadline date is set due to unchangeable circumstances - a rocket launch to Mars might have a single date on which it can occur, or the rocket will not get to Mars. Quality of work may be the priority in a drug study or clinical trial, where human lives are at stake – if we get something wrong or compromise on the quality, the impact will be bigger even than the failure of the project. Cost is a priority when funds are extremely limited – while research dollars are almost always limited, cost may not be the driving priority if one of the other elements is more important.
During the initiation phase, determining the driving priority is essential to help make decisions in the planning phase and also during controlling and monitoring throughout the execution of the project.
There can be only one: You can sometimes have two driving priorities, but always be mindful that ultimately one thing will be the priority. While controlling costs is always important, it may not be the thing that drives the decisions within the project. If the project identifies additional funds are needed, and those funds are secured, then it is likely scope or quality that is the driving priority (as in, "to complete the scope of work, we need more $$"). If cost is the driving priority, then when the project says it needs more money, the answer would be "no", and the scope or quality would be adjusted.
When a priority is just a priority: Driving priorities might be considered constraints - things that cannot change or have the least flexibility for change. However, constraints deal more with resources available to the project, whereas driving priorities are the areas of focus for management. Time might be constrained in the form of a deadline, but time may not be the driving priority if scope or quality is the most important thing.
Driving priorities are also not the same as objectives or deliverables. It is important to be clear about the project objectives - what the project aims to do to address the strategic question - but the driving priority refers to the project management element that is most significant in our choices to manage the project – the priority for management of the project. For example, in preparing for a compliance audit, while the deadline (time) of the audit is a constraint, the driving priority might be considered to be quality (or perhaps scope) as the goal would be have all of the documentation and resources ready for review.
Know thy project: Lastly, it is important to be clear about what the project is you that are managing. We need to separate out the use of our project’s product from the project itself and be sure to manage the project. For example, when working on a proposal for grant application, there are two separate projects – the proposal, and then the research project. The driving priority in the proposal project is time – the deadline is immovable – with scope being a close second (we need to be sure that all elements of the proposal are completed and submitted). The driving priority in the research project is quality. The goal of the proposal project is to get the proposal submitted, not to do the research. The goal of the research is the better understanding of the subject and generation of new data, information and knowledge.
Ch-ch-changes: Be aware that the driving priority might change over the course of the project. At the start, time or cost might not be priority but as the project progresses, and time and money are spent, they may become priorities as the project end date or end of budget approaches. All part of progressive elaboration.
Identifying the driving priority is one essential task of project managers in establishing good project plans. This one piece of information can inform countless decisions throughout the project, and contributes to keeping all elements in balance while contributing to successful management.
Who is Robyn?
My career as a research project manager is rewarding, dynamic, challenging, and fun. I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge and experience in communication, organization, and common sense approaches in research management and leadership, and to enabling others to learn and grow in this exciting career.