Think outside of the project management triangle

Elizabeth Michalka

There are differences between working as an in-house or agency PM, but we have one thing in common — relationships.

Resources and guidance on in-house digital project management are few and far between, especially when it seems that every other digital project manager (DPM) works in an agency. While some aspects of agency work may be applied in-house, the environments are different. I couldn’t put my finger on the precise differences until recently, and it involves our constraints, and how we work with and around those constraints.

Let’s start with the Project Management Triangle, AKA the Triple Constraint or the Iron Triangle, which is a model of the typical constraints of project management — it looks like this:

The Project Management Triangle

During the Digital Project Management Summit (DPM) that I attended, a lot of agency folks talked about making decisions and modifying plans based on The Triangle. I sensed that they apply The Triangle differently than I apply it in-house, and I began to wonder why … On the last day of the conference, during a special workshop, it hit me. We do use The Triangle differently. It all began to make sense when I was grouped with other DPMs to complete a hands-on exercise. We were tasked with developing a plan to launch a blog within a week (a week!). There was only one other in-house project manager in my group, and the 2 of us took a different approach from the agency DPMs. Here’s why:

Agency DPMs work for clients who pay for a project to be delivered within a certain time, budget, and scope. The agency can pull the strings on resources, scope, and schedule as needed. For example, if the client wants a new blog within a week, the agency can put more resources behind the project and raise the cost in order to deliver the blog on time.

In my world, though, as an in-house PM, if I’m told to launch a blog in a week, I don’t have the same strings to pull on. When it comes to my constraints, my resources are set and consistent, cost isn’t even in the picture — at least not in the same way — we have hidden costs like salaries, but I don’t get a project budget. That’s right. I do not have a project budget. Let that sink in for a moment …

The only strings I have to pull are on scope and schedule — it’s all I’m left with since I have no budget and resources are fixed. I regularly consider how much my team can realistically accomplish within the deadline we’re given (scope), and what other projects need to be put on the back burner or whether any aspects of the project can be removed or held for later (schedule). So, I prioritize on 2 levels:

  • At a macro level, I prioritize a project in consideration of all other projects happening at the same time.
  • At a micro level, I prioritize tasks within a project.

I depend on prioritization. Actually, one of my favorite responses to an ambitious list of requirements is, “Can we save that part for phase 2?” Phase 2 is my lifesaver. It’s a tactic that helps everyone hone in on the requirements that are most critical to project launch, and buys my team some time to roll-out additional requirements or features later.

During the DPM Summit workshop, the agency experts looked at me with shock and awe when I explained that I have to prioritize and re-prioritize projects. I actually saw some mouths drop, and I think I heard some gasps. But I was as surprised as they were! It was the first time that I realized how different agency work is from in-house work. I don’t have agency experience, so I had nothing to compare my experiences to, until the conference.

One of the DPM Summit masterminds Brett Harned explained that as an agency DPM, you can’t re-prioritize projects. They can’t say that Client A’s project is now more important than Client B’s project. They certainly can’t go to Client B and tell them their project is going on the back burner. At least, they can’t do that if they want to keep their agency afloat. But, in-house, at least in my environment, re-prioritizing projects is a given. We have to do it, and we do it regularly because we don’t have enough resources to get all the projects done at the same time.

It was an eye-opening revelation that I think gets at the core difference between in-house DPMs and agency DPMs. We work differently because of the constraints we have (or don’t have). We work in different environments with different expectations. Even so, all DPMs still have something in common — relationships.

Relationships Make the Project Management World Go-Round

The only consistent leverage I have is in how positive my relationships are, and how much clout, trust, and respect I’ve built with my team members, stakeholders, and internal clients (usually my boss or another department head). I leverage the relationships I’ve built to delegate tasks and get stakeholder buy-in. I have to be resourceful and negotiate with everyone because my resources are fixed. Occasionally, I can leverage a relationship in order to gain an additional resource, like help from a colleague in another department. For me, successful resource juggling and negotiations depend on the credibility I’ve established, my institutional knowledge, and my ability to prioritize and scope. Relationships are also key when I’m thrown a curveball or the always fun swoop and poop.

I’m not claiming that all my professional relationships are perfect because they’re not. What I am saying is that I realize more than ever how important positive, honest relationships are to our team’s success, to my success, and to each project’s success. Relationships are key for every project manager, and one of our strengths are our soft skills and emotional intelligence. Regardless of whether you work in-house or at an agency, you should learn which relationships are the most important to nurture, and which ones can be positively leveraged. At an agency, it’s more likely the client relationship, but in-house it’s the relationships with coworkers.

So, now I’d like to propose a different project management paradigm, for which I give full credit to Daphne Earley, my former manager and an expert project manager. It looks like the below, with relationships forming a circle around The Triangle. Relationships can be leveraged to allow the points of The Triangle to flex and adjust, depending on the situation. Relationships are what make the DPM world go round, despite your constraints and regardless of whether you’re a project manager at an agency or in-house, like me.

Project Management Triangle encompassed by Relationships

Whether you’re an agency or in-house project manager, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article! Connect with me on Twitter and LinkedIn. Alternatively post a comment below.

Elizabeth is the Web & Interactive Project Manager & Producer at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in Durham, North Carolina.