Project Trade Off – Scope, Time, Cost, Risk, Quality

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com

Project managers use trade offs to provide decision-makers with data on the impact of a change on scope, time, cost, quality and risks. Then the sponsor understands the full impact whenever they have a variance or a change request. Trade offs maintain the project’s feasibility. Project Manager Skills Main Page

Here is an example of  a project trade off.

The sponsor says to the project manager, “I want to move up the finish date from June 30 to May 30.  Make it happen.” The sponsor starts to leave the meeting.

The project manager says, “Yes, I can shorten the duration of the project by four weeks. Your assistant told me about that and I modeled it.  To cut a month off the duration, I will need to have two additional engineers for the month of April and the budget will increase by $10,000 for extra consultants.”

A trade off has two sides. First, there’s the positive side where the PM shortens the duration of the project. Second, there’s the negative side where the project manager says they need added budget for two additional engineers for the month and additional consultants.

The sponsor says,”No all I want is to cut the duration.  No additional people or money.”

The PM says, “If I told you I could do that it would be lie.  To shorten the date there will be other changes.  It is not possible without consequences.”

The sponsor responds, “A good PM would be able to do whatever I want!”

Then the project manager replies, “But it would be a lie.”

Requirements for Trade offs

Trade offs are part of the toolset good project managers use. You must build the project plan with quantified measurable outcomes for every deliverable. And the schedule must have work estimates and accurate precedence relationships. Then you can model every change with its compensating trade offs. Risk Management

When project sponsors want to make a change, successful project managers never say, “Oh no, we can’t add that to the project.” What they say is, “Certainly I can add that to the project, but I will need three more people full time.” Other negative sides of the trade off could be, “We will have to increase the budget by $10,000” or “We’ll have to reduce the savings in our scope by $6,000.” This is the language of trade offs. The project manager is not saying no.  Instead, they are telling the sponsor or stakeholder what it will “cost” to bring about the change they want. Trade offs maintain the feasibility of the project. Merely shortening the duration does not.

Project Trade off Language

You should do what successful project managers do and use trade offs between the scope, schedule, cost, risk and quality when assessing problems and changes to the project plan. When anyone wants to add or change something in an existing project plan, you should always assess the impact on all of the project’s dimensions. If the change is significant enough to require a change order, you should document the trade offs. That information allows the sponsor or customer to decide if the change is worth making.  You should also use trade offs when proposing corrective action for a variance to the plan. The variance should be documented in a status report.  Status Report Template

Here’s a detailed example of using project trade offs.

Let’s say the schedule has a task that was originally underestimated by the consultant hired to produce the deliverable. Now that consultant says it’s going to take an additional 160 hours of work. The PM agrees with the new estimate and quantifies the impact of that increased time on the project budget.  The 160 hours of remaining work will take 4 weeks at the rate of 40 hours a week with the one consultant. Because the task is on the critical path, this will cause a 4 week delay of the project completion date.

The project manager then develops alternative trade offs for dealing with the situation.  First, the PM looks at the trade off that comes from adding one more contractor to the task. In that scenario, the original consultant would do 80 hours of work and the second consultant would do the other 80.  If each worked 40 hours a week, they could finish the task in two weeks rather than four weeks. The cost of hiring the consultant is $100 an hour.  How much would  the project budget increase? The answer is there is no no increase. The addition of the second consultant allows the work to be spread over two people and the duration reduced. But the hours of work remains the same no matter how many people work on it.

There are many other types of trade offs the project manager could use. They might reduce the scope of the project, which usually reduces the amount of work and the duration. They might also consider trade offs for quality and risk. With this explanation of how trade offs work, let’s talk about how you can use the trade off technique in managing your projects.

Project Trade off – 4 Corners

Think of a project as having 4-Corners:

  • project scope (including quality of deliverables)
  • duration
  • risk
  • cost (human resources and materials).

The project is like a tube of toothpaste. When an executive squeezes on a project’s duration corner by cutting the due date by a month, the toothpaste compensates by oozing out from one of the other corners. When the sponsor squeezes the duration, it will deliver less scope, cost more, or have a higher risk of failure. Changes in one corner always impact at least one other corner.  That fact exists whether people recognize or not. It’s not realistic to assume that making arbitrary changes to one corner of the project, like the duration, can happen without any compensating effects through the rest of the project.

Why don’t sponsors recognize this impact? Because in most projects only one, or at most two, of these corners is measurable.  The completion date is always measurable and is often rock solid. In some situations, the project budget is also measurable. But most internal projects have no other measurable dimensions.  Even with the two measured dimensions of duration and budget, the business value of the project (the scope) and the risk of not delivering that scope on time are usually unmeasurable.  So executives continue to make arbitrary changes to the duration and the budget and think that it will have no impact on the project’s scope, quality or risk.

Just think about what happens when a project manager goes back to his team and says, “We have to finish two weeks earlier.” What will the team members do? They will look for shortcuts. The quality may go down and the level of deliverables produced may suffer as a result. Team members also take shortcuts that increase the risk of the project failing. But the project sponsors don’t  know this and they therefore assume there’s no risk from their arbitrary reductions in duration or budget. They are 100 percent confident in delivering the scope within the duration and/or budget.  Now every project manager knows that 100 percent confidence is ridiculous. Particularly because most organizations have a project failure rate above 50 percent.  Yet few project managers give their sponsors the opportunity to make decisions about the level of confidence they want.

Project Trade off – Using the 4 Corners™ Trade off Approach

This is a better approach. If you have a quantified measure of the project’s scope (the business value) and you follow best practices when building the project schedule and budget, you can present your sponsor with quantified trade-offs between the 4-Corners™ of the project plan.  This data-based decision-making and fine-tuning is a good platform for the sponsors’ approval. It is far better than arbitrary changes to one or more of the 4-Corners™ without any offsetting changes to the others. You will also use these quantified trade offs every time there is a variance to the plan.  Your status reports should include analysis of the trade offs between the “4-Corners.”™ That gives the executives data to evaluate the alternatives for taking advantage of opportunities and recovering from problems.

This project trade-offs approach is inconvenient for executives who want to make a change to just one corner. If they do that, you will have projects that aren’t feasible, are late, over budget and achieve less than planned. Arguing with the project sponsor doesn’t work, particularly when they are your superior or your customer. What does work is using decision-making data. That’s the benefit of using project trade offs.

Project Trade off Foundation for Scope, Budget and Duration

Here are the foundations of trade offs:

  1. You must develop alternative combinations of scope, budget and duration by building a project plan and schedule using best practices. The requirements are that you define every deliverable and every task in the work breakdown structure (WBS) with acceptance criteria. That way there’s no ambiguity about the progress or the completion. You base the project plan and schedule on estimates of the amount of work required. You cannot use just start and finish dates. With those components in place, you can offer the sponsor and decision-makers alternatives and trade offs between scope, budget and duration.
  2. During the initial presentation of the project plan, you should model at least three project trade-offs or alternative ways of doing the project. Starting from the project’s base design, you construct three trade offs to finish at least 20% earlier than the base design. You also construct three alternatives that collectively lower the cost of the project by 20%. Having these options available during the project presentation gives you the ability to answer the question that executives often ask, “How can we do this cheaper and faster?”
  3. When your weekly status report shows variances from the plan, you should use project trade offs to model alternative corrective actions to address the variances.
  4. When you have change requests, you should assess the impact of the change on the project scope, duration, risk and cost. Then you present the trade offs between those constraints.

Project Trade off Summary

It is a project management best practice to assess the impact of a change or variance on the project’s scope, cost, duration and risk.  Then you model project trade offs between those “4-Corners” ™ and give the decision-makers alternative ways to deal with the opportunities and problems.

To learn the specific techniques for framing your projects and developing these “4-Corners”™ trade-offs, look at our project management bookstore or consider taking one of our project management training courses. We offer them in-person at your site or as online courses where you work privately with your instructor according to your schedule. More on Decision Making Data,

To master these techniques and the way to present them to the project sponsor, take a look at our advanced techniques courses in your specialty.

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Author: Dick Billows, PMP

Dick has more than 25 years of project and program management experience throughout the US and overseas. Dick was a partner in the 4th largest professional firm and a VP in a Fortune 200 company. He trained and developed 100's of project managers using his methodology. Dick is the author of 14 books, over 300 articles and director/producer of 60 short project management videos. He and a team of 25 project managers work with client companies & students across the US and in Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East. They have assisted over 300 organizations in improving their project performance. Books by Dick Billows are on Amazon.com