Project Constraints: A Comprehensive Guide with Examples

working through project constraints

Because every project and its resources are finite, project managers must work with (and around) their limits. One of the biggest project manager responsibilities is managing project constraints in order to ensure that your project gets completed on time, on budget, and with the appropriate allocated resources.

In this project constraint guide you will discover:

What are project constraints?

Project constraints are limiting factors for your project that can impact quality, delivery, and overall project success.

Some say there are as many as 19 project constraints to consider, including resources, methodology, and customer satisfaction. These are worth planning for depending on your organizational structure and processes, but we’ll cover the six most common project constraints likely to impact nearly every project.

We’ll also discuss how these constraints are interrelated, how to manage them separately and together, and how to balance all constraints with your eye on overall project success.

Six project constraint examples.

Quality.

Quality is one of six major constraints of every project, as depicted in the classic triple constraint triangle, which also includes scope, time, and cost:

The triple constraint of project management

Quality sits slightly apart from the other three project constraints appearing inside the triangle because it is almost always affected by any change to the other three. At the same time, changing quality expectations will most certainly impact the project’s time, scope, and cost.

Most importantly, all project constraints within the classic triangle are interrelated, so a strain on one will affect one or more of the others. Here’s a quality project constraint example:

Learn more about project quality management

Time.

One of the most important stakeholder considerations, project time (how long it will take to deliver), is a vital measure of project success. Your task is to estimate project time as accurately as possible, which requires a blend of research and experience.

If you’re a newer project manager, you’ll rely more heavily on past projects for precedent, and use their data to give you a sense of appropriate scheduling for your project.

Look over completed projects’ closing documents and schedules to gain a sense of how long certain work packages typically take. And be sure to study any project constraints surrounding time management.

If you’re a more experienced project manager, rely on both research and your past performance and wisdom when estimating time ranges — including potential delays, change requests, risks, and uncertainties. Overall, your job is to provide stakeholders with the most accurate range possible in order to avoid surprises or making unrealistic promises.

When considering time constraints of a project, you may want to consider:

For instance, if there is a delay in the delivery of critical materials for build, then the project timeline may need to be adjusted, which will impact the cost and possibly the scale of the whole project. A level of flexibility is required to maintain success within a project.

Learn more about project time management

Cost.

Equally important to stakeholders is how much a project will cost. As with time constraints of a project, your budget estimates need to be presented in a range. Some key research will lead you to accurate numbers.

Be sure to estimate:

To do this, you should look at costs and budgets for similar past projects inside and outside your organization.

Cost management will be an ongoing project management task. You’ll want to stick very closely to your proposed budget, while keeping an open mind about changes that may affect costs.

However, sometimes a sharp rise in costs can unexpectedly impact on a project, such as within Construction. In turn, a sharp rise in costs will introduce further project management constraints, such as the time line of the project and the scale of the project. Both of which may need to be reduced to ensure the project remains within budget.

Learn more about project cost management

Scope.

Since a project scope is not an estimate but a guaranteed set of deliverables, it’s difficult to imagine creating a range for this project constraint. However, you can consider that stakeholders may be invested in scope risk and scope tolerance ranges.

For example, you may list a set of deliverables that could be created if budget and schedule allow, a wish list that your stakeholders can choose from if there’s money and time left over after mandatory deliverables are completed.

For instance, if your project involves IT that you are upgrading or implementing and your project scope is expanded due to new software that your competitors have implemented that now must become part of your project scope, you will have to increase both the project cost and timeline.

Likewise, you may indicate which deliverables on the scope can be omitted or cancelled, if time or cost grow too constrained. If, for example, a few must-have deliverables end up consuming too much of your budget, your stakeholders can tell you which of the remaining deliverables they will allow to be dropped so that time and budget constraints of the project can still be met.

Learn more about project scope management

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Risks.

Here, we usually think of threats — the things that might go wrong when we plan for risks. A project manager must be able to reasonably foresee failures at every step of a project, and prepare for them accordingly.

This can involve playing out  what-if scenarios and formulating contingency plans.

For example, what if:

When managing risks as a project constraint, you must find the zone of risk tolerance in your organization and stakeholders, which means determining a tolerable range of responses within appropriate limits.

For example, if a supplier fails, you will seek out another within X price, Y delivery time, and Z quality. By establishing a zone of tolerance, your stakeholders will be able to determine how much risk they are willing to take on in order to reap the proposed benefits of the project.

Another way to look at risk is through the unexpected opportunities that may arise. Seizing a new opportunity will naturally involve risk, so it’s helpful to show your stakeholders scenarios and determine their window of tolerance on this end of the spectrum as well.

If, say, an opportunity arises to capture a larger market share, will stakeholders be willing to raise their investment amount? What would be the limits of their increase?

Learn more about project risk management

Benefits.

The projected benefits of any project should be clearly spelled out in a business case during the very early stages of project planning. To put it simply, a project’s value must be determined early and fully agreed upon before launch.

Therefore, your business case should articulate the project’s justification and what set of measures will be used to assess its benefits to the organization.

These measures include:

Time.

Actually determining a project’s benefits will most likely have to take place a set period after completion, since impact will need to be measured over time. However, if those benefits disappear or fall below a certain threshold during the project, work should be suspended until further evaluation.

Changes in conditions.

Any number of changes in conditions may also suddenly alter a project’s foreseen benefits. For example, if the cost of construction materials suddenly skyrockets, the benefits of completing a small structure may be completely obliterated. Or, the anticipated rise in sales due to a new marketing campaign may be wiped out if a major supplier goes out of stock.

Benefit threshold.

A project’s benefits are never completely isolated from other factors. The constraints of a project you must continually consider are how a single project’s benefits measure against losses, changes, damages, or rising costs. You should determine at the start of a project what the benefits threshold will be, and what conditions will warrant project cancellation, scaling down, delay, or partial completion.

Proceeding with caution and courage.

We know that no project can be planned or managed down to every single possibility. But you can, within reason, work well within your given limitations to bring about as much predictability as possible.

The key is remembering what your project constraints are, how they impact each other, and when they indicate a change in course is necessary.

Projects constantly change and evolve, requiring a balance of preparation and responsiveness.

How to manage project constraints.

Project management is a balancing act, since constraints will always exist and will differ with every project. By learning effective strategies to manage project constraints you can increase your project performance. Methodologies, such as Agile, Waterfall or Hybrid practices, encourage a flexible approach alongside collaboration, which aid management of project constraints.

These are our top five project constraint management techniques:

  1. Understand your projects possible constraints and plan around them. This might mean building buffers into your schedule to provide contingency. This allows for successful management of any constraints.
  2. Create a project plan that strategically avoids the main constraints highlighted within your project plan.
  3. Maintain focus within the project. Adopting a ‘task completion’ approach, reducing the number of tasks assigned to each team member and limiting multitasking will allow focus to be achieved.
  4. Monitor progress and maintain quality.
  5. Transparency through communication is key. Achieve project objectives through open communication with team members, stakeholders, and by setting priorities.

Every project will require a different level of project management to manage any constraints of a project.

For instance, as small internal project within one department may require a low-key level of project management, whereas a large-scale project that requires a business case, holds stakeholders' interests and is forecasted to provide huge financial gain, will require intensive project management.

For each approach there are multiple methodologies and techniques to utilize.

A knowledgeable and experienced project manager is essential for the successful implementation of the different project management phases:

  1. Initiation
  2. Planning
  3. Execution
  4. Monitoring and Controlling
  5. Closing

However, even by planning ahead, managing project management constraints, as well as constraints of a project, is not always successful. Sometimes seeing the constraints in real time through project management tools is the best form of management. Utilizing tools within a project management system can help keep track of your project’s life cycle at every stage.

Frequently asked questions.

What is a project constraint?

Project constraints are simply restrictions that limit your project’s desired outcome. Constraints can be identified at the planning stage of a project, whereby they can be mitigated and planned around. However, some project constraints will arise throughout the life cycle of your project — so project managers need to remain flexible.

What is project limitation?

A project limitation is the same as a project constraint, for instance the scope of a project acts as a constraint since it defines the boundaries of the project through a set of desired goals, tasks and achievements.

The main six project constraints include the following:

  1. Scope
  2. Time
  3. Cost
  4. Risk
  5. Quality
  6. Benefits

Why should you know the constraints of a project?

Every project, no matter how well it is planned and managed, will face constraints. These inevitable and unavoidable constraints are the limits your project must work within. Since project constraints are interlinked, it is essential that you understand how one project constraint can, not only, affect the success of your project, but also how it can lead to further limitations.

Without an understanding of project constraints in project management, you will struggle to succeed.

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