I was in my early 20s when I first heard the truism above in a project management class.
The implications of “Good, fast, and cheap…pick two” are:
- If it’s fast and good, it’s going to be expensive
- If it’s good and cheap, it will require lots and lots of time
- If it’s cheap and fast, the quality will be poor
The “it” in the statements above can be a project, a product, or most anything that requires effort and money.
The bottom line of the model is this: “it” cannot be good AND fast AND cheap at the same time.
We drive ourselves crazy trying to manifest the unicorn that lives at the perfect intersection of all three of these circles.
Here’s the problem…
Our customers, our bosses, our internal drive for success, and possibly the entire world’s population seem to demand all three anyway. Academics call this tension between good, fast, and cheap the triple constraint.
As a recovering perfectionist, I have found the mantra “good-fast-cheap-pick-two” helpful to keep me grounded when the world wants me hunting unicorns.
To bring reality (and self-compassion) into this model, here’s how I choose to apply it:
- When I prioritize quality, I need to give myself plenty of time to complete it and perhaps hire/outsource parts of the project
- When I prioritize keeping costs low, I must allow for more time and imperfections in the final product
- When I prioritize speed, I need to increase the budget and balance my expectations of the output
I’m not saying that the statements above are always easy, but the mantra helps (along with the deep breathing exercises that my Apple Watch makes me do).
Here’s an example…
On March 13, 2020, like so many people around the world, I entered a time of quarantine with my family. Our spring break trip was cancelled. All my speaking engagements were being postponed, and I was scared.
I decided to write a story book, Captain Corona and the 19 COVID Warriors to help children cope with the looming pandemic.
Here were the priorities on this project:
The book had to be produced quickly because children were confused, and parents and teachers needed a resource ASAP. It needed to be cheap because I had little money coming into my business and was planning on giving away the book for free.
And that meant…horrors! I had to relax my standards of perfection on the whole thing.
It was painful to let “good” come third, but I thought of that time when Wesley looked at Buttercup and said: “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”
So, with Cary Elwes reverberating in my head, I went to work assembling a team of people who, like me, felt compelled to do something positive during a very negative time.
According Captain Corona’s illustrator, InkyBrittany, I communicated my priorities to the team relatively clearly:
The book came out quickly: ten days from idea to publication.
It was cheap. Most of the team worked for free. Those who couldn’t work for free severely discounted their fees for the project.
We did it well. Perfectly? No. But, we did well, especially considering the circumstances.
Below is the Captain Corona project in a Venn diagram:
If I could wave a magic wand, I would have made Captain Corona a Caldecott and Newbery Award winner that was produced for zero dollars in one week. But that is a unicorn, not reality.
And, if that had been my goal, the book never would have happened. And, I’m so, so, glad that it did happen.
Here’s the good news…
When you prioritize your circles, you are not necessarily losing one (or more) of them completely:
- “Good” may need to slide to the left, or
- “Fast” may need to slip to the right, or
- “Cheap” may need to drop to the bottom.
This adjustment (and the loss of the perfect unicorn) will make you uncomfortable. Life is pain, highness.
However, if you don’t intentionally prioritize the circles, circumstances will do it for you. You’ll blow your budget, miss your timelines, or produce something completely unworkable.
Or, you’ll never finish the project at all.
I want you to finish your projects. I want you work effectively and efficiently. I will not promise a perfect unicorn of results in everything you do, but I can help you set and achieve realistic, meaningful goals.
If you are hunting unicorns, contact me for a no-cost-to-you assessment of your current productivity strategies. We will talk on the phone for an hour and determine if productivity coaching can help you achieve balance across your competing priorities.
Is perfectionism your productivity barrier?
Check out my online course, Unwrapping Perfectionism.
Melissa Gratias (pronounced “Gracious”) used to think that productivity was a result of working long hours. And, she worked a lot of hours. Then, she learned that productivity is a skill set, not a personality trait. Now, Melissa is a productivity expert who coaches and trains other businesspeople to be more focused, balanced, and effective. She is a prolific writer and speaker who travels the world helping people change how they work and improve how they live. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 912-417-2505. Sign up to receive her productivity tips via email.
Everyone knows I’m a sucker for a good chart. And I’d seen this one before. I was familiar with the concepts from a consumer’s point of view, and a service provider’s point of view. But not so much from a unicorn-seeking, adjusting-priorities project point of view. So, thanks for that!
I dub you, Hazel, the “Queen of Charts” and receive your comment as praise from the best. Thank you!
I’ve heard “good, fast and cheap…pick two” before, but I like story of you putting your book together. I can relate. I started a big new project during the pandemic and so not to get overwhelmed, i just do a little each day. Too much and the overwhelm will make me put it away and not move forward. I have realized that I don’t need to have my project done fast, but I’m trying to avoid it taking forever. So I guess I’m choosing good and cheap for this one.
I loved your first diagram, but when I saw the second one, the concept clicked! The shift in the circles mirrors the change we must make in perspective to see the “thing” come to fruition. Often on any project, there is a stuck point. Understanding the three principals and knowing your objectives at the onset is a great way to go. I also think that within a project, we might adjust the meanings we attribute to “good, fast, and cheap.”
Going into this year, I consolidated and redesigned my website. It was an investment (as in not cheap.) My main objective was for it to be good…as in excellent. But along the way, I had to adjust certain expectations for what was possible. The turnaround was slower than I expected, but fast in the scheme of this project. For each of those elements, the expectation for what they represented shifted as we went along.
Congratulations to you for creating something positive and valuable during this pandemic. And bravo for identifying which of the three areas you wanted to focus your energy to make it happen.
Thank you for pointing out the importance of adjusting the meanings of good, fast, and cheap as you go through a project. That’s spot on. You cannot always foresee every twist in the road when you start.
I’m probably just restating what the other commenters have already said, but it was interesting to see this well known adage applied to a specific project. Thanks for sharing your experience!
This is a fabulous post – easy to understand and so important. I never met a Venn diagram didn’t like:) I love that you jumped into action and put together a book for children. I think they are all still struggling, even the ones who are a bit older, but still not likely to want to talk about everything that is going on. Unfortunately, I think this could linger awhile. I think knowing your priorities for any initiatives helps you deal with the inherent conflicts between speed, quality and cost. Thanks for sharing!
Enjoyed the post. To me its a winning blog post for having a good Princess Bride reference when discussing a work concept. I have already shared with other team members. Get’s the point across very clearly.
Best movie ever! Thanks for noticing.
There’s a reason we’re friends as well as colleagues. I love how you create magic unicorn sparkles of clarity wherever you go. And, my dear perfectionist, I think Captain Corona is pretty darn close to perfect, and all the parents and grandparents who’ve downloaded it for their tiny humans would likely tell you the same. Yes, we all must adjust our expectations, but when you bring your A game (the way you always do), everything is unicorn sparkly!
Thank you, my friend. In all seriousness, Captain Corona was a unique opportunity for me to practice GEPO (Good enough! Press on.). I won’t list the many things I would have done differently because that would be annoying. But, I did have to fight my inner perfectionist daily during the process. It was a growth opportunity for me, and the results, I agree, did sparkle. I am a better person for having the experience with Captain Corona and the amazing team of people (including you!) who made it happen.