Doctor Project Forum – Managing Project Trade-offs

March 2010

Dear Doctor Project

I am struggling with a project where I am told that I must work within the defined scope and budget. As well, I have a fixed number of resources and must meet all of the customer requirements. I thought all projects had “trade-offs” between these constraints.

It’s not that I don’t think I can meet all of these needs but you know what its like – if anything can go wrong, it will. What if I can’t meet my entire scope or work within the constraints of the time and budget. What if I can’t meet all of the customer requirements?

I guess I’m just worried about all of the “what ifs”. Do you think that my concerns are justified? Or is it that I’m just worried about the unknowns for no good reason? I really need your help and understanding so I can get on with managing this project.

I look forward to your advice,

Dear Challenged,

I have two approaches that you can take to ease your concerns.

1. Conduct project risk management by completing a Risk Assessment on the project.

Conducting project risk management will provide you with the information you’ll need to anticipate what might prevent project success. Through this process you’ll identify how to reduce risk likelihood and how to manage risk(s) should it occur.
Project management skills require a sound understanding of project risk management. Anticipating risk and identifying the tasks necessary to reduce risk likelihood should always go into your project plan to ensure that you don’t overlook them and have a plan of action to prevent the likelihood that risk will occur. This is your contingency plan. While you always hope that you never have to use the contingency plan (sometimes referred to as a mitigation plan), if a risk occurs, at least you’ll be prepared for it.

Project management training programs usually cover the topic of project risk management. Project management articles are another good source of information about this subject.

2. Manage project trade-offs

If a project risk occurs it’s very likely that you may need more project management resources such as money and/or resources and/or time to manage it. The risk may also impact your ability to meet all of your customer requirements. In addition to risks, other changes may occur on your project for any number of different reasons. This is when you’ll need to examine the project trade-offs. To examine the project trade-offs, be clear about the impact that any change will have on the project-whether it be more time, budget, resources, etc. This includes:

  • The reasons for requesting a change request
  • How the change impacts the project with respect to customer requirements, time, scope, etc.
  • What recommendations you have to deal with the situation, (never give just one) and
  • What the outcome will be on the project if each of your recommendations is not accepted.

The more information you give to your sponsor to consider, the higher the likelihood they’ll give you an acceptable response. The reason why Sponsors don’t often approve change requests and insist that project managers stay true to their original project requirements is because they have not been given enough information to make an informed decision. Therefore they insist that no trade-offs be allowed on the project.
Please keep me updated as you progress through your project’s execution. I am very interested to know whether or not you really need to exercise any of the project trade-offs.
Doctor Project

Doctor Project provides helpful advice for overcoming project health issues. Please send your questions, issues, concerns and challenges about your projects or your Project Management Office (PMO or EPMO) to

Michael Stanleigh

Michael Stanleigh, CMC, CSP, CSM is the CEO of Business Improvement Architects. He works with leaders and their teams around the world to improve organizational performance by helping them to define their strategic direction, increase leadership performance, create cultures that drive innovation and improve project and quality management. Michael’s experience spans public and private sector organizations in over 20 different countries. He also delivers presentations to businesses and conferences throughout the world. In addition to his consulting practice and global speaking he has been featured and published in over 500 different magazines and industry publications.

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