Project constraints are anything that restricts or dictates the actions of the project team. These can cover a lot of areas. The so-called 'Triple Constraint'- the 'triangle' of time, cost and scope - are the big hitters, and every project as project drivers has one or two, if not all three project constraints.

To be more precise, under the Triple Constraint, which is also known by the names - Project Management Triangle, Iron Triangle and Project Triangle, are the following:

  • Cost – which represents the financial side of a particular project, or the project budget
  • Scope – which represents the project goal
  • Time – which represents the project schedule

Many projects in the Information Technology area, for instance, are driven by time. On the other hand, a business relocation project would likely primarily be constrained by time. The secondary constraint for such a project would be cost as there is a limit to how much can be spent.

What is essential for you to know is how to document the project constraints. You can basically use the same techniques you use to document project requirements and project assumptions.

Besides the well-known Triple constraint, one project manager shouldn’t overlook constraints like the following below that can cause problems to the project:

Lack of commitment from the executive management team or project sponsor

The number one factor for successfully completing and delivering a project is the commitment from the executive management team or the project sponsor.

It is hard to lead a project with this constraint, because you could struggle in the process of getting support or resolution of problems, which is crucial for a successful closure of a project.

You should be careful for this constraint because it can creep up on you later on in the project.

The sponsor may lose interest because other things have come along that usurp the priority of this project and so on.

Business interruptions or reorganizations in the midst of the project

Unplanned company reorganization or other kinds of business interruptions in the middle of a project can have a big negative impact on the project.

In the course of such operations, great challenges might arise that can put the project work in risk.

Business interruptions or reorganizations his could potentially realign the project resources, leaving the company budget empty.

Stakeholders who have unrealistic expectations of project outcomes

There can be times when stakeholders have unrealistic expectations about the project outcome and the project manager should manage them in order to avoid project failure.

Project managers could easily overcame this constraint through good project communications and by requiring sign-off of the project charter and scope statement documents.

Stakeholders who have unrealistic expectations of the project schedule

Similarly as the previous constraint, this one can put a risk on the project work. In general, dealing with stakeholders' unrealistic expectations of the project schedule can be complicated.

For this constraint, also, communication is crucial.

The earlier the project manager sets a good communication with the project stakeholders and defines the project schedule and deadlines, the bigger the chance to deliver the project in time and on budget.

Shortage of skilled resources

The shortage of skilled resources for a particular project can be a major concern.

This constraint can have a negative impact on the start dates and completion dates on the project, and, as a consequence could cause big project delays or unfilled deliverables.

In addition, customer satisfaction could take a huge hit on this constraint as well as their anxiety mounts throughout the engagement.

Poor communication with the project team

Studies show that poor communication can lead to project failure one third of the time, whereas strong and effective communication leads to overcoming great obstacles and challenges which increases the chance for more successful project closures.

Poor project team communication is a potential project killer, because can provoke misunderstandings regarding scope, activity assignments, project schedules, risks, or a long list of other project essentials that cause uncorrectable problems and project failure.

Unstable economic times or business conditions

Sometimes, instability of the economic situation or the business can create difficulties of different kinds for the execution of projects.

General economic disturbances are known to provoke risks in project delivery and also the project team.

These risks may involve difficulties in obtaining funding or resources for company’s projects which may present negative impact on the business as a whole.

Advances in technology

Advances in technology can cause project delays due to lack of knowledge of the new technology, training needs or availability of training, availability of resources with experience in the new technology, and so on.

However, these difficulties can be surpassed and looking at the long-term benefits, adopting new technology can enable improvements in different areas in the project.

For example, implementing a project management software in the company’s environment, at first, could be difficult for the project teams, but later will bring numerous benefits.

Constraints, like assumptions, are also documented in the scope statement.

These should be updated as you progress through the project to make adjustments to the constraints you've listed, add new ones that may come up along the way, or delete those that are no longer a constraint.

Remember that sometimes you'll find that constraints are also project risks and may need risk response plans.