The Iron Triangle – Episode 9

Show Notes

Join us for our last episode for 2021!

In this episode, the Outsiders delve into the Iron Triangle and discuss dealing with the critical project constraints of cost/resources, time, and scope. Is there a silver bullet to address these age-old constraints? Is there a lever a Product Owner can pull to tackle them wisely? Listen in to find out.


Product Outsiders – Ep 9

Product Outsiders – Ep 9

[00:00:00] Tammy Bulson: Welcome to Product Outsiders, a podcast for unconventional product people.

In a world awash in and MBAs and fancy suits, we’re the people standing on the outside, our sleeves rolled up, ready to get some stuff done. Coming from many different backgrounds, we may not be exactly what you picture when you hear the term product manager, but we’re passionate about solving problems for real people in ways that create real value.

Today, we’re going to take a look at the iron triangle of product management. I am Tammy Bulson. I am an agile practitioner by day and a writer by night.

[00:00:57] Amber Hansford: I’m Amber Hansford, I’m currently a UX design manager, former product manager, and former front end developer.

[00:01:04] Will Sansbury: And I’m Will Sansbury. I’m a product management leader for a supply chain management software company.

[00:01:10] Tammy Bulson: Great. Well, Will, Amber, and I are excited tonight to talk about the iron triangle. Anyone that works software development has probably heard this before: a development team is asked to build something, and the reply is you can have it good, fast, or cheap. Pick two.

Similar thinking brings the to the iron triangle. For anyone not familiar with the project management iron triangle, it describes the three constraints in project management, meaning to deliver any project there’s three factors you need to consider, cost, time, and scope. And if you picture the three of them in an standard triangle, you can’t change any of the three sides of that triangle without impacting at least one of the other two. And at the center of all, of course you have quality. We’ve probably all seen the diagrams.

However, even though we’ve talked about that for a long time, we still find that as an industry, it’s something that we face as a challenge day to day.

So Will or Amber let’s do a hypothetical. Let’s say that you’re a product owner and you go to a team that wants you to build this great new thing. And you tell the team, I want this great new thing. I want it solid and perfect. It needs to include this entire list of things. Oh, and I need it rolled out to customers by the end of next month. What do you think you might hear back from the. Other than are you crazy?

[00:02:43] Amber Hansford: Yeah, I was about to say, and once we get past the inappropriate responses that would give us an explicit tag on our podcast. Once we get past that, with a product team coming back and hearing all of these requirements? Yeah. They’re going to go, okay. What can we cut first to be able to A, make it on time, and B, make it on budget.

[00:03:06] Will Sansbury: Maybe I’ve grown cynical, but I think what you’re more likely to hear is a resigned okay. And then three months later, a yeah, we didn’t make it.

[00:03:16] Amber Hansford: That’s fair, that’s completely fair.

[00:03:19] Tammy Bulson: That’s totally fair. You both know that I often say I’m a recovering project manager because I was a project manager in my past life. And with a project manager mindset, I would think, okay. Tell me how long you think this is going to take. Let me figure how many people we need, and what tools do we need. And then we’ll back into this state.

But when we think about it from an agile perspective, and we say that we flip that triangle upside down and we have a fixed team, we have fixed time because most of our agile teams work in sprints or work in a fixed period of time. But what we change is the scope. So from a product owner perspective, how do we handle that? How do we get what we want without sacrificing the scope that we originally intended?

[00:04:13] Amber Hansford: My first thought was, do your discovery work to be able to find out what your MVP actually is and make sure that it’s actually minimal. The M of the minimal viable product tends to get lost. When most folks look at it from that predictive traditional iron triangle, before you can flip it over to the adaptive style, that is a little more agile. But it’s a slippery slope anytime I hear iron triangle with agile practice.

[00:04:46] Will Sansbury: I think we gotta be clear though about what it is we’re talking about flexing when we talk about flexing scope, because most people I think go to flexing scope means cutting out some of the JIRA tickets. Trimming some of the requirements off. And when you’re doing it that way, it’s tough because either you’ve written requirements that have a whole bunch of fluff, so you can trim it out or you’re extensively cutting into meat instead of fat.

But if, instead of thinking about it as the scope of what you’re going to deliver in terms of feature functionality, being what flex is, think of it as the scope of the problem you’re going to solve. I think it opens up more flexibility for the team, right? If what you’re doing is deciding that you’re going to have a bigger or a smaller outcome, then there’s a whole world of ways you can adjust inside of that.

[00:05:34] Tammy Bulson: So what if I’m your customer? And I tell you, I want this thing and I want to sign a contract with you, but I want you to say that I’m going to have it by this date. I mean, that never happens, right?

[00:05:47] Amber Hansford: Never! Never! We never build products exclusively for one customer. What are you talking about?

[00:05:55] Tammy Bulson: And we know that it’s not… We know, and maybe your development team says, Hey, that’s not reasonable. We can’t deliver that amount of work in that period of time. How do we handle that?

[00:06:06] Amber Hansford: I would say, look at the difference between what you’re outputting to the customer and then what your outcomes that you’re actually looking at, to go back to some of our previous podcasts. It really does come down to the fact that a customer won’t sign a contract without a date, but you’ve got to also know your customers and what their actual problems are.

[00:06:29] Will Sansbury: Yeah. And in my current life, we’ve had some solid success with writing multiple statements of work on contracts with the first one being explicitly around discovery. So, using the process to admit and acknowledge that we don’t know enough to really lock in yet. So let’s spend a tiny amount of money, comparatively, to figure out when we can lock in. And that works fairly well. I think it’s still got challenges, cause you still end up locking into a date that’s still too far out in the future to really know that you’re going to hit it, but that helps a good bit. The other thing, and this is, you know, pardon me for pulling out the largest soapbox I have and climbing up on it, but I’ve never understood the addiction in software companies for selling something that you don’t yet have.

If we can just break that habit and sell the software that exists and not get into that addictive pattern of easy sales when you make a custom promise. Instead, just don’t go there, right? Then you can avoid a lot of these problems altogether. If the contract you’re writing is for the thing that you already have, it becomes an implementation, it’s not custom development and any software company that wants to scale and have a business model that really maximizes the benefit of software and that you can write it once and sell it to multiple times. You shouldn’t be writing stuff custom. You shouldn’t be locking yourself in, because best case scenario in that situation, is you build it, deliver it on time, and the customer’s happy, but there’s also an opportunity cost that you have to acknowledge that you may have taken that time to build a thing, to make that one customer happy, and not taken the time to build the thing that makes 40% of the market happy. So, I think the strongest product organizations and software organizations are the ones who stay relentlessly focused on the market. We’ve got to serve our customers as individuals, but we’ve got to build software for them in aggregate.

[00:08:24] Amber Hansford: You also run the risk, and I’ve seen it before, and I’m sure that both of y’all have as well, that that time that you do build that custom code for that one particular customer, it can then in turn, turn your product into a Frankenstein because it is so one-off and so unique that now your next five customers that are coming need something else that makes sense. But now you’ve kind of painted yourself into a corner on the product side. And you might as well have just done a standalone product for that one customer instead of that five customers that you’ve got in the queue waiting.

[00:09:06] Will Sansbury: So I’m going to shout again from the top of this soap box, if you’re a software product manager and you’re put into a situation where you’re asked to build something for a single individual customer, and you do not have a product that is completely open API as to where customization can be layered on top of the base product in a way that’s not destructive? Then, you should run. You should go find a new job, working for people who understand the economics in software a little bit better.

[00:09:31] Amber Hansford: Preach! Thank y’all for coming to our Ted talk.

[00:09:38] Will Sansbury: I might have a little bit of passion on that.

[00:09:41] Tammy Bulson: You know what’s funny though? When I really think about this, it’s like it’s an entire paradigm shift for our industry or for the industry in general, to move away from the ways of yesteryear, where everything was done with, I will build this thing for you, sign on the dotted line and I, the company, will go build it and I’ll get it to you on time.

What you described earlier is more along the lines of, Hey customer, let’s have this agreement that we’re going to have this collaborative approach, and we’re going to work together to do some discovery. And I think that’s key. I think that’s how we get there as an industry. How do we start shifting and changing that thinking people like us, standing on the outside, trying to make a difference. How do we start people thinking along those lines, how do we make that paradigm shift?

[00:10:26] Will Sansbury: I think it’s, as with most things, the only way to really prove that that’s a better way of living is to somehow beg, borrow, or steal the opportunity to experiment. If you can find one super friendly customer that can kind of join you in that early discovery, work through a boxed-in statement of work just around discovery? Then you can usually show some good results.

The one caution I would give you, is even when you’re doing a statement of work for an individual customer, to understand something, go find two or three more. Then, maybe you don’t have a statement of work for it, but at least put them into the mix of your research and your understanding, so that you do counterbalance the risk of building for the one.

[00:11:05] Tammy Bulson: That’s a great idea. It’s to find some friendlies and align with those clients.

[00:11:10] Amber Hansford: Yeah, and I would say in conjunction with that, also, you’ve got to change the hearts and minds of the folks that you’re working with as well as the customer sometimes. So, experimentation again is the key. You’ve got to find maybe that one initiative that has kind of been sitting there in the ice box for a little while, and you’ve got some cycles open. Hey, let’s try to do some proper discovery this way with a cross-functional team, give it a try. Experiment. Then you can get that investment from the inside of your organization while you’re also getting those customers who are also willing to experiment and try something new by having that statement of work early, that really highlights discovery.

I’d say it’s a huge, positive, having people out there like Melissa Perri with The Build Trap, like Marty Cagan, like Jeff Patton, focused on empowering the product teams to make good choices. And also to provide them with that agency to be able to talk to the customers, to get them just as invested.

[00:12:20] Will Sansbury: The other thought that occurs to me is if you can find a progressive minded sales person to get them on your side for pitching the idea of discovery. They’ll recognize that that can be the difference between not closing a deal because you can’t get somebody who’s on the fence to fall on your side of it, or getting somebody to say, you know what? I’m not going to sign this $500,000 deal right now, but I will give you $60,000 to go do discovery and I’ll limit my potential risk here, and at the end of the day, if I decide not to go forward? For most enterprise customers, 60,000, it’s nothing to sneeze at, but it’s also a rounding error, right? If you can find that salesperson that can position to those on the fence customers, that here’s a way that you can continue exploring this without fully committing? That can be pretty powerful.

[00:13:10] Tammy Bulson: And do you guys think that type of thinking applies whether you’re a small startup or a large corporate company?

[00:13:17] Amber Hansford: I think honestly, it’s easier to do in the small startups than it is in the large companies. You’ve got so much calcium built up at those large companies that, in particular, have been focused on being sales driven for so long. So you do fall into those very bad habits of sales selling something before it even actually exists in some of the larger companies. Where they’ve been in revenue extraction mode for so long that they don’t understand that you can get the revenue from that value creation.

[00:13:48] Will Sansbury: I think I’ve got a different perspective than you on this one, Amber, because I’ve seen so many startups where it’s not a matter of finding the right thing and building it as a matter of making payroll.

[00:13:58] Amber Hansford: That’s fair.

[00:13:58] Will Sansbury: And when it’s a matter of making payroll, you take whatever contract is before you and you commit to whatever you have to. And it can be really tricky to take the product that emerges from those first 3, 4, 5, 6 contracts, and somehow pivot it to be appealing to the wider market. I think that it’s a risk in startups.

I do think if you’ve got that startup, though, that is a little bit more financially stable? Then I agree with you. I think a higher risk tolerance there in a healthy way.

[00:14:23] Amber Hansford: We’ve watched so many startups implode in the last two years because they weren’t able to, kind of pivot. I hate to use the word pivot. I hate to use it in a daily life, but it’s a valuable word in this sentence. Just not usually spoken in business bingo.

[00:14:41] Will Sansbury: Am I the only one who has pictures of the Friends cast with a couch in hand, going upstairs, anytime someone says pivot?

[00:14:49] Amber Hansford: We do speak memes here, thank you very much.

[00:14:54] Will Sansbury: The other thing I think is, we’ve got to recognize is that what we’re talking about here is not really a product management problem. It’s a fundamental business model problem, and there will be some organizations that are more amenable to the idea of shifting and changing and will understand that they need to change their business model. Other places, if you try to change the business model, you might as well be trying to rewrite DNA to turn a frog into a canary. It’s not going to happen. So being aware of the dynamic that you’re in, and what your chance of success for actually pushing the change is important. Because you can very easily overspend your social capital.

[00:15:36] Amber Hansford: I’ve always been a true believer that I’m more than happy to help change hearts and minds at the end of the day, but then changing companies DNA, especially if, bless their hearts, there’s just a few folks who actually deeply want that change within the leadership, but they’re fighting their own uphill battle against that hard bedrock of the company, DNA being change adverse? You’re going to be on the losing end. And I hate to say it that way, but I’ve never seen that kind of dichotomy ever work well in the end, outside of burnout and finding someplace else.

[00:16:15] Will Sansbury: And from my personal experience, you might have some success, but the success you have is tilling the grounds so the next person can plant, right?

[00:16:22] Amber Hansford: Yeah. You’re much more of a glass half full than I am.

[00:16:27] Will Sansbury: I’m a Pollyanna with pigtails on.

[00:16:29] Tammy Bulson: I’m still trying to think of your bless your heart. Was that the kind of bless your heart that we’ve learned that you’ve used before?

[00:16:40] Amber Hansford: Bless your heart is a multifaceted phrase down here in the south.

[00:16:47] Will Sansbury: It always sounds nice, but very rarely is.

[00:16:52] Tammy Bulson: I love it. If our listeners are working in a company and they can’t change the DNA of the company, but they do have to make payroll. So they’re in the first situation that Will outlined or that Will mentioned. How do we set teams up for success? When dates have already been given out, that contract’s been signed without the buy-in from the team. How do we handle that? What’s the best way to handle that situation?

[00:17:22] Will Sansbury: I think if the contracts getting signed without any input from the team, you’re up a creek, there’s really nowhere to go from there. All you can really do is hope that maybe they stumbled upon an estimate that they pulled out of their backside that has some resemblance of real life. I think in that sort of situation where I would push is to get the voice of the people doing the work into the estimation process. So that they at least have a chance to shape it. Because ultimately if you’re still going to get locked in to date and scope, then you really get forced into a corner where all you can do is kind of pad. Very intentionally, look at your estimates and recognize that there’s going to be things you can’t foresee. They’re going to come out and buffer for those and make sure that you do the same thing with your scope. We stan on Jeff Patton all the time, but it’s one of the reasons I love user story mapping as a process, because it helps you really clearly identify what you absolutely have to deliver, what would be nice to deliver, and what you can someday hope to deliver, right? When you do that stratification of the story map and helps you understand what that minimal scope truly is. And I would make sure that when you’re estimating and putting forth the date, put forth the date that’s about the minimal plus one layer. Knowing that worst case scenario, all you have to deliver as the minimum.

[00:18:40] Amber Hansford: Unlike normal, I will say, I agree completely with Will. It’s a rare occasion.

Yeah, if you can get that buffer built in, if you’ve got no choice in what you have to deliver, building in that buffer will be integral and also trying to… I will keep reaching this, this is my own personal soap box. Without investment from your entire team in building something, you’re never going to get a great product. Even when they’re put under completely asinine restraints, such as the pie in the sky, so sales already sold this. We got to build it. We don’t know how, but if they can still have that belief, if nothing else, even if it’s not in the product at that moment, but within their team and that faith in that team, it will help you get through the really crappy bits like that.

[00:19:40] Will Sansbury: One of the other things that I have been learning, somewhat painfully through my last couple of jobs, is the truth that you will very rarely ever change a process when it’s in the middle of being executed. When you’ve got a contract in front of you that has revenue attached to it, that helps you hit your quarterly goals, that helps us sales person get their quota? That is not a rational conversation. If you need to go back and say, Hey, I think we’re committing something we can’t deliver? You just can’t have that conversation in that moment.

But what you can do is, if you survive enough of these failed projects exploding on you, is keep some notes and go backwards and look at it and say, okay, listen, we’ve been doing projects this way for the last two years, and we’ve delivered one out of 17 projects successfully.

Do we want to continue that right? Is that an acceptable trend or should we try something different? That’s a way to get people woken up. Like I said, you will never do that if waking up and recognizing the reality that you’re putting in front of them requires them to walk away from something that hurts to walk away from.

[00:20:50] Tammy Bulson: That’s a great point, Will. So often we don’t track our learnings or present them in a factual way based on what we experienced to help try to change things for the better. So that’s an excellent point.

[00:21:04] Will Sansbury: And beyond how many projects did you successfully deliver, if you’ve got enough time and enough, enough runway, how many of those projects that you stumbled through, where’s customer satisfaction at a year later? If we’re busting our tail to deliver a whole bunch of stuff where everybody’s stressed, just to get it through the pipeline. And at the end, end of the game, we’ve got people who are ambivalent or antagonistic towards us? Then, okay, we got their money, but we’ll never get them. They’re going to bail as soon as I get an opportunity to go to RFP again.

[00:21:36] Tammy Bulson: Yeah. And if we circle back to one of our previous podcasts, at the end of the day, it’s all about the outcome. If we’re not delivering value and we aren’t satisfying customers, then really what’s the point?

[00:21:48] Amber Hansford: There’s also the mindset that I’ve seen at multiple places that it’s always about the new customers and never about your existing customers. And they, let’s be frank, they are your best marketing tool. You’ve got to make sure that your existing customers are satisfied. How do you do that? By talking to them, by constantly getting that feedback loop set up, over and over again, because yes, that new client, they may be really, really shiny and really interesting. But there’s a reason why the old saw of a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, because they’re not real yet. You’re leaving your existing customer by the wayside if you’ve built a crappy product within the timeline that you’re constrained to, and the scope that you’re constrained to.

[00:22:48] Will Sansbury: It can be a really powerful metric to track is how many of your customers would willingly give you an hour of their time to talk to a prospect in a similar industry about your product? And if you’ve got to go in and beg, borrow, and steal to find somebody to talk to you, you’re probably not satisfying your customers in the way that you really should for the longterm.

[00:23:07] Amber Hansford: Very true.

[00:23:09] Tammy Bulson: Excellent discussion, guys. This is exciting. I know this is one that we are all very passionate about and we’ve spent a lot of time over the years talking about. Any other final thoughts before we wrap it up for today?

[00:23:22] Will Sansbury: We’ve talked a lot about flexing scope and making sure that you don’t get locked in. The other thing I see people go totally wrong with, and it seems like the higher you rise in leadership ranks, the more prone you are to make this mistake. You forget about the Mythical Man Month. You start to think that you can throw more people at a problem and actually get the output that you want and get the horsepower that you need. And you miss that, it takes time to ramp people up and there’s coordination costs as you get larger and larger teams. And the research is pretty clear, you throw too many people at a problem and you actually decrease your overall productivity. We have to be careful with that, it’s it’s rare. I’ve very rarely been in a situation where there were bags of money hidden in the coat closet, and we could just go throw people at a problem. But when that temptation hits, it is so dangerous and almost always the wrong thing to do.

[00:24:11] Amber Hansford: I’ve worked at places that did have those metaphorical bags of money where, oh my God, super strapped, got a tight deadline. Okay, so we’re going to bring on 10 contractors and you have to train them and still get things out the door. And I’m like, you know, this doesn’t actually help, right?

[00:24:29] Tammy Bulson: And if we had those mythical bags of money, we’d also have magic pixie dust, and we wouldn’t have this problem to begin with.

[00:24:36] Amber Hansford: Exactly! Exactly!

[00:24:39] Will Sansbury: Or at least we’d be feeling a whole lot better about the problem. One or the other.

[00:24:44] Tammy Bulson: Exactly. Well, thank you so much for listening to us today, we’re glad you took some time to join in.

If you’re interested in hearing more, or you have a topic that you’d like us to cover, check us out at and find us on any podcast provider. Stay gold.

[00:25:06] Amber Hansford: Stay gold.

[00:25:07] Will Sansbury: Stay gold, Outsiders.

In this episode, the Outsiders delve into the Iron Triangle and discuss dealing with the critical project constraints of cost/resources, time and scope. Is there a silver bullet to address these age-old constraints? Is there a lever a Product Owner can pull to tackle them wisely? Listen in to find out.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Closing up Shop

Dear Loyal Listeners and Podcast Guests,

Thank you for your involvement with Product Outsiders. Whether you’ve been a guest on our show, listened to just one episode or listened to them all, we appreciate you.

To everything there is a season, and we’ve decided to close up the podcast to focus on other endeavors. The three of us still have very strong opinions about building great products and anticipate sharing those opinions in other forums, as we can’t help ourselves. It’s just how we’re wired.

Thank you for being on this journey with us. We’ve learned and we’ve had fun – we hope you have too.

Until next time, stay gold outsiders!