Understanding the Agile Project Management Triangle

It’s easy to believe that as a project manager, your job is simply to manage projects. If only it were so simple…

The hard truth is that every project manager also has to manage stakeholders, a completely different task that presents its own challenges and requires its own strategies. One such strategy is using the concept of the iron triangle, a simple visualization that helps communicate the tradeoffs projects always need to make.

So when your stakeholder asks why the project can’t be done faster, cheaper, and with higher quality all at the same time, you have a way to at least try and explain why that’s not how things work.

But with Agile project management, there’s another specific version of this tool you can use to improve communication, alignment, coordination, and decision-making with your stakeholders. So if you’re struggling with Agile stakeholder management, maybe it’s time to try using the Agile project management triangle.

The Challenge of Stakeholder Management

We can begin by really understanding the challenges this tool is trying to address.

The first and most fundamental challenge of stakeholder management is simply understanding your stakeholders in the first place. This means regular interactions with them to learn about their interests and needs, because in today’s fast-moving world of marketing, you can’t assume those things are going to stay the same.

Of course, this instantly becomes more complex when you’re dealing with multiple stakeholders that have competing priorities. Add in resource constraints and plain old communication struggles and it can quickly feel like you’re spending more time managing stakeholders (cat herding anyone?) than actually managing projects.

Finding the right way to keep stakeholders informed and engaged, manage expectations, and ultimately deliver value is always a struggle. But Agile goes a long way towards addressing these challenges by putting stakeholder value at the forefront while finding ways to integrate them into your processes and build alignment.

The Iron Triangle

The original iron triangle has three points: scope, resources, and time.

The Iron Triangle

The idea is to communicate to stakeholders that improvements in any of these three areas will lead to compromises in one or two of the others. For example, if you wanted something done extremely quickly, it would likely be of poorer quality and demand more resources. Likewise, if you wanted something extremely complex and high-quality, you were going to need to allocate more time and resources to make it happen.

The beauty of this approach is its simplicity. It takes mere moments to explain and understand the tradeoffs stakeholders need to consider. It’s no wonder it’s proven popular with project managers and people simply trying to balance project considerations alike.

But the other element of the iron triangle worth considering is which elements are fixed and which are estimated. Traditionally, the scope of the project is fixed at the beginning while the time and resources needed to achieve that scope are estimated.

This axis is where the Agile project management triangle functions differently.

The Agile Project Management Triangle

The Agile Project Management Triangle

If the scope is fixed with traditional iron triangles, the Agile version very literally flips things on their head. Instead of having the scope be the fixed element, Agile sees the time and resources as fixed while making the scope estimated.

In other words, instead of saying “build me X and we’ll figure out how much time and resources it will require as we go” the Agile approach is built around “we have Y time and Z resources, so let’s figure out the most value we can deliver with them.”

Why the change?

This shift reflects the key difference between Agile ways of working and traditional project management. When you begin with a specific idea of the end result you want and let the scope and resources go from there, you end up with projects that get delayed endlessly while going over budget. These faults are what have led to Agile’s growing popularity.

By letting the time and resources you have guide your work, you’re able to instead focus on delivering the greatest possible value with what you have.

However, if you don't take the time to get your stakeholders on board, they can be a new way of working detractors because we tend to fear the unknown. They can easily respond negatively to the idea that you’re not going to deliver exactly what they want at the beginning. Instead, use the Agile project management triangle as a tool to explain the value of this shift and the WIIFM (what's in it for them). 

Stakeholders should understand that change occurs to practically every project regardless of the amount of scoping and planning that goes into it.  In turn, they will hopefully also see that the Agile project management triangle better accommodates such change and allows for feedback from them and others to be accounted for as the project is underway.

If they’re still between, you can look to resources like the latest State of Agile Marketing Report that show how Agile enables you to produce higher-quality work, release that work more quickly, and prioritize what really matters, among other benefits.

What Marketing Teams Do Well in 2024

Even if you’re not working in marketing, these benefits are significant. But accessing them requires getting your stakeholders on board.

Using the Agile Project Management Triangle with Stakeholders

We’ve talked through the benefits of using the Agile project management triangle, but what does that look like in practice?

To begin, the triangle can be used to explain the basic shift in what elements are set and which are flexible. From that starting point, you can develop a strategy for regular stakeholder engagement in order to further build alignment around and gather feedback on what scope can be expected for a project.

In this way, the triangle can also serve as a tool to shift from a fixed to an Agile mindset. By returning to it regularly or even putting it up on a wall in the office, it can serve as a regular reminder of the kinds of shifts that are expected when transitioning to Agile project management.

It can also be helpful to frame the Agile project management triangle as an alignment tool, something designed to get everyone on the same page about how the project will progress.

Before proceeding to explore a few examples of what can go wrong, why don't you take a second to get our Agile Marketing Quick Start Guide?

Examples and What Can Go Wrong

As with anything Agile, this is inherently an iterative process. Things can and will go wrong as you try and use the Agile project management triangle with stakeholders. To help alleviate these problems, you should look at how your stakeholders react, what questions they ask, etc.

After all, you shouldn’t be presenting the triangle to your stakeholders as a demand or ultimatum, it should be the beginning of a conversation. For example, you can begin by explaining the basics and asking “how would doing things this way affect our work?”

For example, let’s say you’re managing a project to promote a major product update. The client wants a long list of features, a firm deadline, and a hard budget cap. Instead of simply responding with “that’s not realistic” you can use the Agile project management triangle to make a case for structuring the project differently.

Here, you can sort the features into a prioritized backlog. Your goal will be to deliver as many as you can within the resource and time limits you’ve been given. This should give your client greater confidence that you will finish the project within the constraints given and that if any features end up left out, they will be the least important ones. Better yet, as the project evolves, you can get regular feedback from the client, who can adjust the features or their prioritization as everyone learns more about the project.

By listening to the perspectives of stakeholders and seeking clarification through powerful questions, you’ll be better able to frame up an alternative project management approach as a disciplined experiment with defined parameters and measures of success (e.g. ability to deliver higher value work in a shorter period of time with fewer resources, potential to achieve faster speed-to-market with quicker feedback loops, create a more responsive way of working able to pivot more quickly based on customer reactions and changing market conditions, etc.)  Stakeholders will be more willing to start with something small and expanded further based on the results.

Start Using the Agile Project Management Triangle

If you’re ready to start using the Agile project management triangle to improve your stakeholder management, you may be interested in other PM skills like prioritization, estimation, or user stories.

Fortunately, we created a series of short lessons designed to teach you these crucial skills we call The Ropes. With videos, interactive practice sessions, takeaway activities, and much more, The Ropes has dozens of practical lessons ready to empower you to be a more effective PM.

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