Your working day, if it is typical, may well provide you with several reminders that time and cost are critical factors to manage. To be profitable, we must be competitive; to be competitive, we must constantly monitor costs and timescales. But do you occasionally hear a distant high-pitched tinkling noise that you’re fairly sure isn’t just an unattended mobile phone? It might be a triangle.

The triangle I’m thinking about is the time-cost-quality triangle. It’s not as venerable as it’s orchestral counterpart, which was sometimes depicted in paintings from the Middle Ages being played by angels. Its office counterpart – offered referred to as The Iron Triangle – seems most likely to date to the work of Dr Martin Barnes – now President of the Association for Project Management – in 1969. Describing it’s origins at PMFourm, Dr Barnes wrote:

I designed a course called ‘Time and Money in Contract Control’ in 1969 which showed people how to control cost and time in an integrated way. Notice that if the word ‘project’ had been in general use at that time – I would have used it instead of ‘contract’.  It was on one of these courses that I pointed out that in managing a ‘contract’, you did not just have to manage the cost and the time, you had to manage the delivery of what was specified as well. I sketched a diagram to make the point – a triangle with time, cost and quality at the corners. On the overhead projector, I moved a coin around the triangle to show how the three tensions competed, etc. This concept really caught on and, as far as I know, it was the first time anybody had set down that managing what we now call a project was not just time control, it was control of cost and outcome as well.”

Times have changed since 1969, of course. Few people move coins around on overhead projectors any more: technology has had a major impact on our working lives. Peter Drucker’s interview about the computer industry with Wired magazine – which we covered in an earlier post – remains interesting as well as controversial in his assertion that – overall, measured over a protracted period – it hasn’t made a penny. But in the context of Dr Barnes’ triangle, many technologies are now so universally adopted that their impact on his model is effectively nullified: if we all reap the same benefits, the playing field remains as level – or uneven – as before.

Given human ingenuity and our natural propensity for ‘tinkering’, there have been – in project management circles, where it originated – several attempts to add additional dimensions. As the Better Projects blog explained, the Project Management Institute now suggests a diamond, adding ‘scope’ as the fourth parameter. As the comments to the post show, others draw the diamond as a pyramid, putting Quality at the apex.

But you’ll notice none of the commenters – or refinements on the model – remove its original components: there seems to be consensus that there really is ultimately no escaping them. And as Jeff Edwards – author of the Management House blog – commented:

I like the idea of working with a project sponsor to understand where he or she stands on the competing topics of schedule, budget, quality, and scope. When I have performed this exercise at the beginning of projects, I have never found anyone to budge on quality. None of my clients has ever stated that quality is anything less than the highest priority, and I have worked in many environments.”

Maybe we don’t see learning and development as a ‘project’, maybe it’s the definition of ‘quality’ (while they recognise that business impact is vitally important, many organisations evaluate training only at the lowest of Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels), or maybe it’s just me? But I wonder how many organisations are ignoring that distant high-pitched tinkling noise when it comes to learning. Learning delivers value when it is put to work, not when learners report that a one, two or three day workshop was enjoyable and delivered what they anticipated.

 Return on learning and development investment – measured at the higher level of improved performance – remains typically low. But where organisations recognise this, they often pursue perverse logic as a result. If cost x and timescale y returns yield (ie quality) z, and z is a disappointing percentage, what – logically – happens when you reduce x and y? Unless my algebra and geometry are way off the mark (supportive, developmental comments only), isn’t z going to shrink too?

Our work with the Fort Hill Company on learning transfer and application – and the obstacles to it – indicate that the triangle is far from obsolete. Without investment in the tools, techniques and processes that drive up application (and thereby performance), and in the time needed for learners to absorb, apply and implement their learning, quality will always be compromised. The urge to reduce costs and time are entirely understandable: to quote another of Peter Drucker’s observations:

To put it crudely, a bankrupt company is not likely to be a good company to work for, or likely to be a good neighbour and a desirable member of the community – no matter what some sociologists of today seem to believe to the contrary.”

But without effective learning and development to ensure its future sustainability, its chances of survival are reduced. In a business context, you’re as likely to read about ‘cost-effectiveness’ as unadorned effectiveness. It might be a four letter word and a hyphen, but they remind us that effectiveness – like quality – comes with a cost attached. Whether we draw it as a triangle, a diamond or a pyramid, the more corners we shave off, the closer we come to a circle. Whether you see circles as vicious or as synonyms for zeroes, try to hear that distant triangle tinkling away as a reminder.

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