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Project Management: How to Define Project Constraints

4 of 5 in Series: The Essentials of Defining Your Project

Project limitations may influence how you manage your project and may even determine whether or not you (and your project’s drivers and supporters) decide to proceed with your project. Project limitations typically fall into several categories. By recognizing these categories, you can focus your investigations and thereby increase the chances that you’ll discover all limitations affecting your project.

Your project’s drivers and supporters may have preset expectations or requirements in one or more of the following categories:

  • Results: The products and effect of your project. For example, the new product must cost no more than $300 per item to manufacture, or the new book must be fewer than 384 pages in length.

  • Time frames: When you must produce certain results. For example, your project must be done by June 30. You don’t know whether it’s possible to finish by June 30; you just know that someone expects the product to be produced by then.

  • Resources: The type, amount, and availability of resources to perform your project work. Resources can include people, funds, equipment, raw materials, facilities, information, and so on. For example, you have a budget of $100,000; you can have two people full time for three months; or you can’t use the test laboratory during the first week in June.

  • Activity performance: The strategies for performing different tasks. For example, you’re told that you must use your organization’s printing department to reproduce the new users’ manuals for the system you’re developing. You don’t know what the manual will look like, how many pages it’ll be, the number of copies you’ll need, or when you’ll need them. Therefore, you can’t know whether your organization’s printing department is up to the task. But at this point, you do know that someone expects you to have the printing department do the work.

Be careful of vague limitations; they provide poor guidance for what you can or can’t do, and they can demoralize people who have to deal with them. Here are some examples of vague limitations and how you can improve them:

  • Time frame limitation:

    • Vague: “Finish this project as soon as possible.” This statement tells you nothing. With this limitation, your audience may suddenly demand your project’s final results — with no advance warning.

    • Specific: “Finish this project by close of business June 30.”

  • Resource limitation:

    • Vague: “You can have Laura Webster on your project part time in May.” How heavily can you count on her? From Laura’s point of view, how can she juggle all her assignments in that period if she has no idea how long each one will take?

    • Specific: “You can have Laura Webster on your project four hours per day for the first two weeks in May.”

Determining limitations is a fact-finding mission, so your job is to identify and examine all possible sources of information. You don’t want to miss anything, and you want to clarify any conflicting information. After you know what people expect, you can determine how (or whether) you can meet those expectations. Try the following approaches:

  • Consult your audiences. Check with drivers about limitations regarding desired results; check with supporters about limitations concerning activity performance and resources.

  • Review relevant written materials. These materials may include long-range plans, annual budgets and capital appropriations plans, benefit-cost analyses, feasibility studies, reports of related projects, minutes of meetings, and individuals’ performance objectives.

  • When you identify a limitation, be sure to note its source. Confirming a limitation from different sources increases your confidence in its accuracy. Resolve conflicting opinions about a limitation as soon as possible.

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