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Fast, Reliable, or Cheap

I was a good ten-plus years into my career and working on a sizable acquisition as master data lead when I first met him.

He was early in his career, and in our first meeting announced he would be the Project Manager (PM) for the project and commenced to lecture us on what we needed to be doing and what his expectations of us were.

Who was this guy? Who did he think he was? We already had a project plan and had been working on it for weeks.

Well, for the purposes of this blog article, I will refer to him as "Mr. Z."

After Mr. Z left, we all chuckled at his ‘confidence’ and went about our business. Several meetings later, I think he realized we were self-sufficient, and he was more or less along for the ride as the project continued to progress in green status.

That is until the day things changed. The CFO wanted to accelerate the go-live for the project by two months. If you have any experience moving payroll data to a new platform, you know it is always best done at year-end or at least at a quarter-end. Moving a target cutover by two months inevitably results in more work and an increased risk of inaccuracies. The team was understandably upset by the CFO’s request and not too delicately discussed ways in which to politely decline his offer.

Enter Mr. Z. When he heard the request and our colorful ways we intended to provide feedback to this ludicrous suggestion, instead of getting agitated along with us, he was very calm. When asked why he was so calm he just said that the response to this sort of thing was simple. He intended to talk to the CFO and let him know that this project, like any project, can be Fast, Reliable, or Cheap, and the CFO could pick any two.

At first I admit I was confused, but then the young Mr. Z shared the wisdom of this approach. He explained it this way.

In any project the competing priorities are speed (moving the deadline up by two months for example), reliability and accuracy (as in zero defects in paychecks), and cost. But these three priorities compete with each other, and a successful project can only have two.

As we talked through this the lights went on in my head. How simple and elegant indeed.

It goes like this:

  1. Fast and Cheap: If you pick fast and cheap then you’ll be in a hurry, not have enough resources, and likely not have enough time to test, resulting in a project that puts Reliability and hence employee experience at risk.
  2. Reliable and Cheap: If you want it right but don’t have the budget to invest in the extra resources and skill sets to deliver something quickly then settle in for the long haul. This strategy expects to use resources that compete with other projects and probably a day job and things will inevitably take longer.
  3. Fast and Reliable: If it absolutely must be right and you need it now, open up the checkbook. This approach will require additional resources and investments to work in parallel to be sure all your testing gets done well and quickly.

So, what happened? It worked. The CFO realized the risk was too high to shorten the timeline and didn’t want to pay extra for more resources, so the date didn’t change.

While I initially thought that young Mr. Z was a bit of a nuisance, I realized that he possessed some bits of wisdom from which I could learn.

I have used the positioning of fast, reliable, or cheap — pick any two for years and it is effective. Said tactfully, it helps executive sponsors understand the competing priorities that projects face. It also helps them to make those trade-offs, especially if addressed at the beginning of the project. I hope it helps you too.

Thanks Mr. Z!

For more information on optimizing your processes, read: Process Optimization: To Optimize or Not to Optimize?