Are Time and Cost the main controls in project?

In many discussions about projects, people express the view that Time and Cost are the main controls. In fact, a common view is that projects fail when they deliver late or run over Budget. In a recent, initially unrelated discussion, this comment was made about the importance of delivery on time and budget”.

Initial comment

My reaction is always the same: many projects fail because of a focus on time and cost. A focus on time and cost will always result in low quality. Sometimes already during the project, failure occurs because of immense damaging effects of low quality, causing the project to spend large amounts of time, cost and effort to perform rework. Many times, the low quality is ignored during the project to finish on time and budget. In these cases, normally RoI (Return on Investment) will be lower than could be achieved. The benefits will be low while the cost of operation and maintenance will be higher than necessary. In terms of Business Case, the projects will probably have failed.

My reaction

On this website I have often mentioned this important risk. In my reaction to the gentleman who expressed the previous opinion, I referred to this page.

This is my normal reaction when time and budget are seen as the most important aspects of a project. In many cases, people disagree with me. They express views that are quite common, but in my view not valid; it is an expression of conventional wisdom but completely ignoring many projects failing with often disastrous results. Also, in this case the gentleman disagreed.

Second reaction

Why do I disagree?

Quite often there is a matter of perspective. This gentleman has a balanced view. So I assume he is not one of the many people that are just shouting their believes without any valid arguments, which is unfortunately very common.

Let’s go through his arguments.

First point: no control on time and budget

Strangely, when I oppose to the common focus on time and budget it is often interpreted as no control over time and budget at all. Obviously, that is not what I propose. In my view there should be a balance between several aspects where time and cost are not dominant but only some of the aspects. In basic concepts of project management, we are talking about the Triple Constraint.

But as this page discusses, the Triple Constraint for me is too limited, apart from the fact that Time and Cost will be constraints but Quality obviously is not. Unless you don’t care about quality, it is a goal, not a constraint.

For me the most important aspect of a project is the RoI of a project. That is why I use six aspects, in line with the views of PRINCE2.


The second point: it will not damage quality

Obviously, I disagree. When people are willing to learn lessons from many failing projects and when they will really think about it, they will see the point here. Even the concept of the Triple Constraint will point you in this direction. People may want to believe this is not true but for many years the evidence points at another reality. Why would that have suddenly changed in your situation?

Good? Cheap? Fast?

Time and cost are the main controls? That will cost you a lot of time and money to repair.

The third point: the supplier’s perspective

In his reaction, the gentleman made a very valid and significant point: the terms of a contract. This leads us to the perspective of a supplier and this perspective changes the discussion. When I previously mentioned RoI, it should have been obvious that I spoke from the perspective of the customer of the project. But the supplier, commercial or internal, will have a different perspective. The customer and the supplier will always have conflicting Business Cases. The cost of the project for the customer will be the income for the supplier.

When a customer should focus on the validity of the project in terms of RoI, a supplier will focus on the delivery of the project; a much more short-term view. In this document I elaborate.

Forced by a contract, many suppliers are forced to focus on time and cost. The problem is that they are often forced by a customer who basically in this way also forces a supplier to deliver poor quality. Maybe it is wise for customers to change their attitude and especially in uncertain situations aim for cooperation instead of rigid contracts.

My final point: culture

Quality is hard to measure when compared to time and cost. Overhead department tend to focus on measurements that they understand and can easily measure. The focus on time and cost usually comes from the culture that is dominant n the bottom-left square of this diagram:

Culture model
Click the diagram for further explanation.


These departments and this culture focus on controlling; doing things right. But with that attitude and culture they often hinder successful projects and successful change. People who focus on doing the right things will focus on the Business Case and RoI; on achieving business objectives.

About the author

Specialist in effective change.

Accredited MSP™ and PRINCE2® trainer.

comments powered by Disqus