The project management body of knowledge (PMBOK)
endorses that every project is governed by the triple
constraint, which reflects a framework for evaluating
competing demands. This paper extends the benefits of
polarity management to the triple constraint in project
management through an integrated framework. The aim of
this paper is to indicate that the integrated framework may
provide a feasible negotiation mechanism to facilitate
optimum trade-offs between, and exploitation of, the key
triple constraint variables as a function of the project higher
- Polarity management, project management,
Projects are generally undertaken because they are
part of the plans to advance organizations to new levels of
performance and to ‘operationalize’ business strategies.
Projects are however constrained by conflicting demands
and competing priorities within the project environment.
The triple constraint is a critical project management
concept that originates from the basis for undertaking a
project and provides direction for framing the project.
Although the triple constraint theme has various
interpretations, the literature shows a general agreement
that project scope, time and cost comprise the three key
triple constraint variables .
The project management triangle (Fig. 1) is a useful
model to illustrate the consequences of change on the
triple constraint to key project stakeholders. The triangle
reflects the fact that the three constraints are interrelated
and involves trade-offs – one side of the triangle cannot be
changed without impacting the others. Project quality
takes root in all three variables of the triple constraint and
is affected by balancing the three factors , .
The cause and effect of new or changing triple
constraint requirements need to be constantly negotiated
during all phases of a project. Trade-offs need to be
considered and priorities need to be managed in order to
realize strategic decisions , , . Dobson’s notion
on the hierarchy of constraints defines a project by listing
the triple constraint variables in order of flexibility .
Dobson’s theorem proposes that exploitation of flexibility
in the weaker (more flexible) constraints can be used as a
mechanism to meet the absolute requirement of the driver
(least flexible) constraint in order for the project to
Fig. 1. Project management triangle.
Some literature suggests that there exists a lack of
appropriate (and consistent) scholarship on the triple
constraint and its dynamics. Triple constraint affairs are at
the core of the most crucial decisions about a project.
Failure to manage it correctly and effectively is enough to
doom a project even if all other project management
activities are done to a high standard of excellence . It
has become commonplace in many projects to view the
triple constraint variables as ‘either/or’ choices. The role
of the project manager however needs to be an ongoing
balancing act of the rival priorities and perspectives.
When it comes to intertwined organizational
problems, Johnson suggests that instead of viewing
opposing concepts as being mutually exclusive (the
‘either/or’ approach) to rather manage the opposing
concepts as a series of dilemmas that are interdependent
opposites (the ‘both/and’ approach) . Johnson refers to
these sets of opposing concepts as polarities, which are
characterized as not functioning well independently and
not possessing clear solutions. Polarity management
involves articulating the positive and negative aspects of
the two extremes of a polarized dilemma as an aid in
deliberating where on the spectrum one can maximize the
positives while minimizing the negatives of the respective
positions . Johnson’s polarity map (Fig. 2) provides a
structure for addressing the complete picture of a dilemma
. The push for movement in a polarity is for a shift
from one pole to the other because the downside of the
present pole is being experienced or anticipated as the
‘problem’, and an attraction develops to the upside of the
opposite pole, which is perceived as the ‘solution’. The
attraction inherent to the diagonals reflects the
interdependent nature of the dilemma in that each pole
requires its opposition in order for it to be sustainable over
time. This movement through the four quadrants (from L-
to R+ to R- to L+) may be described as a sigmoid curve
that oscillates between the characteristics of the left and
right poles and takes the form of an infinity loop.
Strategic Management of the Triple Constraint Trade-off Dynamics – a Polarity
C. Jurie Van Wyngaard
, H. C. Pretorius
, Leon Pretorius
Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment, University of Johannesburg, Johannesburg, South Africa
Graduate School of Technology Management, University of Pretoria, Pretoria, South Africa
978-1-4577-0739-1/11/$26.00 ©2011 IEEE
Fig. 2. Polarity management map.
The outcome of a well-managed polarity strives to
extend beyond the aggregate of its segments through
optimizing a dynamic balancing mechanism that
effectively shifts back and forth between the two
perspectives . Polarity management provides an
influential instrument for managing conflict and
resistance, and facilitates constructive and sustainable
The principles and practices of polarity management
introduce a refreshed perspective by supporting the
‘either/or’ problem solving approach with the ‘both/and’
rationale, which allows the triple constraint trade-offs to
be held in respectful dialogue. Without the effective
management of the triple constraint as an interrelated
system, projects run the risk of becoming separated from
purpose. The premise is that if these constraints are
properly managed, organizations will be successful in
delivering projects and meeting organizational goals.
The objective of the research study reported on in this
paper was to develop a framework and methodology that
integrate Johnson’s Polarity Management
part of Dobson’s Hierarchy of Constraints theorem ,
, . The purpose of the integrated framework is to
facilitate the effective and strategic management of the
triple constraint trade-off dynamics, and increase the
delivery of project success.
II. RESEARCH METHODOLOGY
The basic structure of the research process used in the
study followed Mouton’s ProDEC framework of social
scientific reasoning . ProDEC refers to the four
standard research elements: a research problem (Pro),
research design (D), evidence (E) and conclusions (C).
The research has undertaken extensive literature
studies of the triple constraint in project management as
well as polarity management principles and practice, after
which an analysis and synthesis process was conducted to
determine appropriate theories and characteristics for an
integrated framework through conceptual explication. The
research study undertook simplified case study
exploration as a mechanism to demonstrate the practical
application of the derived model and ascertain its
The emphasis in the study was on qualitative
reasoning both in definition, explanation and application,
rather than an emphasis on empirical and other
quantitative techniques. The findings of the research study
should thus be considered as preliminary rather than
conclusive, pending further research.
III. THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK
A substantial range of literature has been considered
in the study with reference to more than 120 sources
representing authoritative knowledge across the fields of
project management and polarity management. The
following fundamental characteristics were consolidated
in support of the physiology of the integrated framework:
1) The higher purpose of a project should
fundamentally be the driver of the project. The project
outcome must be fit for purpose.
2) The triple constraint is driven by strategic change
and stakeholder expectations towards the achievement of
the project higher purpose.
3) Failure to deliver all three triple constraint
variables on target does not necessarily imply project
4) Flexibility is an indispensable triple constraint
requirement in order to accommodate shifts in project
emphasis, and to ensure a beneficial project outcome.
5) The trade-off dynamics inherent to the triple
constraint variables of scope (S), time (T) and cost (C)
may be described by the following three key relationships:
SĖ ¢ TĖ CĖ (1)
TĘ ¢ SĘ CĖ (2)
CĘ ¢ SĘ TĖ, (3)
where the up-arrow (↑) implies an increase and the down-
arrow (↓) implies a reduction or decrease.
6) Relationships (1), (2) and (3) signify that any
triple constraint variable can be delivered at the expense
of one or both of the remaining two variables. At least one
of the triple constraint variables must be constrained
(otherwise there is no baseline for planning), and at least
one of the variables must have capacity for exploitation
(otherwise quality may be affected).
7) The triple constraint can be prioritized into a
power structure by ranking the variables into a hierarchy
of capacity for exploitation. The power structure derives
from the project objectives and higher purpose and may be
influenced by environmental change.
8) The simultaneous tensions and competing
perspectives inherent to the triple constraint foster
conflicts and trade-offs. The trade-offs need to be
managed to optimize conflicting priorities and to attain a
deeper comprehension of the strategic picture.
9) Analysis of (1), (2) and (3) suggests that the three
triple constraint variables are interdependent for
Proceedings of the 2011 IEEE IEEM
sustainability over time, rather than mutually exclusive,
and may thus be paired as polarities to manage.
10) Polarity management supplements the ‘either/or’
approach with the ‘both/and’ mindset in which the power
of contrast may be harnessed within the triple constraint
trade-offs by holding on to the exploitation benefits whilst
appreciating the drawbacks.
The integrated framework was realized through
conceptual synthesis of the key derived triple constraint
and polarity management attributes. The matured model is
presented in Fig. 3. The integrated framework has been
dubbed the TRIPOLJECT model (an acronym created
from the titles ‘TRIple constraint’, ‘POLarity
management’ and ‘proJECT management’).
The POLSTRAINT map (an acronym created from
the titles ‘POLarity management’ and ‘triple
conSTRAINT’) constitutes the heart of the TRIPOLJECT
model. The map provides a triangular perspective and is
projected towards the successful outcome and higher
purpose of the project. The rotational property of the map
is indicative of the dynamics that exist within the power
structure of the triple constraint, which is a function of
change within the project environment that may impact
the higher purpose and objectives of the project. Each pole
is categorized into its high and low states. The primary
triple constraint variable (the driver) is illustrated as both
the direction and foundation of the project triangle. It
exemplifies both the positive outcome (project success)
and the negative outcome (project failure). The outcome
is dependent on the achievement of the primary triple
constraint variable through the exploitation of the two
more flexible constraints and alignment with the project
The graphic outline of the TRIPOLJECT model may
be imagined to take the form of a capital letter ‘Q’, which
signifies the central presence of quality and customer
satisfaction. The continuous oval loop portrayed by the
model suggests the introduction of change as well as the
iterative process of monitoring and control towards project
Fig. 3. TRIPOLJECT model.
The TRIPOLJECT model provides a conventional
rendering of the triple constraint of scope, time and cost
and accounts for the supporting considerations such as
project milieu (environment), project strategy (purpose
and objectives), project risk (change), project excellence
(quality), and project performance (monitoring and
controlling). The integrated framework embodies three
dimensions, in which each facet of the triple constraint
may drive the project.
The fundamental hypothesis of the integrated
framework is that the exploitation trade-off between the
two more flexible triple constraint variables can
effectively be managed using polarity management
principles in an ongoing effort driven by the primary triple
constraint variable to ensure achievement of the project
higher purpose. The aim is to minimize the downsides and
maintain a balanced trade-off compromise (illustrated by
the buckled infinity loop in Fig. 3). In practice the
integrated framework is expected to overlap and interact
dynamically with the project management process groups.
Details pertaining to the proposed protocol and application
of the integrated framework are documented in .
IV. CASE STUDY ANALYSIS
Evaluation of the integrated framework was limited to
the exploratory review of the theoretical model and
protocol against a simplified case in order to facilitate a
conceptual understanding of the integrated framework in
practice. The observed case was the building project of the
Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum
(NASM) . There is no claim that this case is
representative of the general project management milieu.
A. Case Translation (System Definition)
The NASM project mission, essentially, was to build
a world-class aviation and space museum for a budget of
approximately USD 40 million and open it on July 4,
1976. A key part of the Smithsonian’s ability to get
congressional funding unlocked for the project involved
the national focus on the upcoming Bicentennial
celebrations. The project deadline was thus identified as
the driver constraint whilst the project scope was
identified as the most flexible constraint (but not
necessarily the least important). The TRIPOLJECT model
for the NASM project is illustrated in Fig. 4.
The exploitation polarity to manage was identified as
the trade-off between the exploitation of the USD 40
million budget (the cost constraint), and the requirements /
features that constitute a world-class museum (the scope
constraint). The success of this project was driven by the
deadline (the time constraint) to open the museum on the
nation’s Bicentennial celebration July 4, 1976 in order to
attain national focus (the higher purpose). In order to
facilitate presentation, the quadrants of the POLSTRAINT
map for the NASM case have been detailed in a simplified
format in Table I.
Proceedings of the 2011 IEEE IEEM
Fig. 4. TRIPOLJECT model for the NASM case.
B. Case Analysis (System Dynamics)
Diagnosis of the NASM case yielded that the system
was initially located in the right pole since it was simpler
to manipulate the ‘world-class’ scope requirements than it
was to exploit the congressional budget, i.e. the flexibility
of project scope outweighed the flexibility of project cost.
Analysis of the case study has classified the NASM
project representatives in two categories. The crusading
stakeholders were passionate regarding the world-class
element of the NASM and treated the trade-off as a
problem to solve. The tradition-bearing stakeholders, on
the other hand, were more focused on cost saving and
efficient utilization of the project budget, and treated the
trade-off as a problem to avoid. The identified risk,
however, was that an over focus on the exploitation of the
scope requirements would eventually result in the benefits
of that pole to dissipate as the system progressively moved
into its downside (R-). This down shift has conceptually
been illustrated by superimposing the polarity map over
the tilted seesaw as indicated in Fig. 5.
With a clear description of the POLSTRAINT map, it
was relatively simple to predict certain outcomes. The
resistance to those crusading towards conserving scope
requirements, and rather pursue additional money and
resources to ensure the deadline is met, would come from
the tradition-bearers whom were focused on containing
the budget and rather exploit scope to ensure the deadline
Fig. 5. System diagnosis of the NASM case.
SIMPLIFIED POLSTRAINT MAP FOR THE NASM CASE
Considerable resistance might have been experienced
in an effort to transition the system via the normal infinity
loop from R- to L+ (i.e. sliding up the seesaw) due to the
tradition-bearers holding on to their value of cost saving
and avoiding their fear of an excessive budget overrun.
The system effectively became stuck and the negative
results of quadrant R- were prolonged. This put the project
at risk to not deliver a world-class aviation and space
museum, with inadequate artifacts and exhibits.
C. Case Recommendations (System Guidelines)
The system flow could be unlocked by affirming the
values and fears of those resisting by effectively reversing
the flow (from R- to R+ to L- to L+). The predicted
complications could be mitigated through the process of
helping the project representatives to anticipate the
learning curve and ensuring support in advance. Through
this process the chances of sustaining the effort to gain the
benefits of the other pole could have been greatly
enhanced, since the focus on either pole alone generated
its own resistance and was not sustainable.
In order to effectively manage the exploitation trade-
off polarity, the project manager needed to put measures
in place to ensure that the project primarily benefited from
the positive results (L+ and R+) and that the negative
results (L- and R-) were avoided. A risk strategy was also
required. The project manager needed to consider each of
the negative aspects in the lower quadrants and defined
indicators (early warnings) that would have alerted the
project team when the project dipped into the red zone of
negative results in order to avoid spending unnecessary
time in these downsides. The project manager also needed
to monitor the dynamics within the power structure more
frequently, in order to identify variances from the project
strategy and implement corrective action as required.
Sound communication provisions were imperative.
Proceedings of the 2011 IEEE IEEM
V. DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION
Although actual opening day of the NASM was
achieved three days prior to the deadline, the budget vs.
scope exploitation trade-off was not optimally managed.
Through the integrated framework, the project might have
benefitted more from the positive results of both upper
quadrants (green zone) by minimizing the time spent in
the lower quadrants (red zone). Thus, delivering the
project fast as well as relatively cheap and relatively good.
This principle can graphically be represented by the
dynamics of the seesaw metaphor depicted in Fig. 6.
Because project management is a dynamic
environment, the integrated framework should ensure that
project managers continuously take corrective action
when needed to avoid pitfalls while establishing and
maintaining good communication paths between all
The discipline of the TRIPOLJECT model has been
demonstrated to provide the tools and techniques that
enable the project team to organize and manage their
work, in order to meet the absolute requirements of the
project. It can be concluded, through conceptual and
corroborative observation in the case study presented, that
the integrated framework may provide a constructive
mechanism to circumvent project failure and promote
project success by:
1) Underlining the project mission and encouraging
a motivated project team.
2) Prioritizing and aligning the triple constraint with
the project higher purpose.
3) Presenting the strategic picture and providing a
structured understanding of the exploitation trade-off
4) Anticipating resistance and interchanging the
exploitation emphasis as required.
5) Capitalizing on the integrated exploitation trade-
offs of both poles and striving for a balanced compromise.
6) Employing risk strategies for monitoring and
controlling virtual (green zone) as well as vicious (red
7) Implementing productive communication and
reporting between key stakeholders.
8) Adapting tactics as required and maintaining
focus on the ultimate goal.
Further research is warranted to ascertain the practical
applicability of the integrated framework via empirical /
Fig. 6. Effective management of the NASM case.
The authors would like to acknowledge the work of
the following persons, which provided the foundation for
developing the integrated framework:
• Barry Johnson (Ph.D.), for his Polarity
• Michael S. Dobson (PMP), for his notion on the
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Proceedings of the 2011 IEEE IEEM