The Butterfly Effect and Managing Project Constraints

What does Project Management have to do with Ashton Kutcher’s time-traveling, past-changing movie from over a decade ago? Everything and nothing.

We can take lessons from Mr. Kutcher’s Sci-Fi film and its core concept, the Butterfly Effect: minute changes, like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, can have large, unintended consequences. Those wings’ flaps can redirect the path of a hurricane halfway across the world.

Being able to understand a project and accommodate for all of its moving parts is one of the most valuable tools for anyone involved in a project, be they client, stakeholder, or project manager, and is invaluable when trying to manage its constraints.

Majestic and graceful insect? Or terrifying harbinger of destruction?

Back to Basics

One thing that a Project Manager (PM) should be able to understand and grasp is the idea of project constraints (or at least they should as it comes straight from the PMBOK textbook itself!). Every project will come with its own set of unique constraints and though they certainly come in various shapes and sizes, all constraints will all fall into one of the following six categories:

These constraints are the lifeblood to any project. When blood flow is restricted in one part of the body, other parts have to compensate for the missing work which only leads to extra effort and stress.

A body struggling to pump blood is like a project struggling to cope with harsh constraints.

Let’s look at this with a real world example. You and your firm are approached by a representative from an anonymous benefactor requesting your services for a project. They want to build a new multi-million dollar home for their client on some prime Hollywood Boulevard real estate.

Fast forward a few months… You are just wrapping up the Planning stage, having completed the appropriate drafts and blueprints. You, your team, and your contractors are on the same page about what needs to happen and by when it needs to happen. You’re looking to move to the execution phase, when none other than the Butterfly Effect star himself, Ashton Kutcher, arrives onsite and reveals himself to be the anonymous benefactor!

He tells you that the original project plans need to be revised, requesting that the home be larger to accommodate four additional rooms and the garage be increased in size to accommodate two additional cars. He then cheerfully gets into his very snazzy, luxury car – but not before informing you that he expects the project to remain on the same schedule.

We’d all look that smug if we could drive in a car like that everyday.

Reality Check

Although this is a very extreme example, it depicts the kind of issues that occur frequently for all stakeholders engaged in a project. Things change and everyone must be flexible in order to deal with these changes. To continue working with the example above, we need to address the changes to this home construction project and their impacts on the project’s constraints, specifically on the Scope and Schedule:

Being realistic, of the remaining four constraints, Quality, Budget, Resources, and Risks, at least one constraint must change in order to compensate for the changed Scope and to keep it all within the timeline. The following are some basic examples of changes to be proposed to Mr. Kutcher:

All of the above are just some examples of the kinds of modifications that will need to be considered with just a single change to a project’s scope. Not to mention the fact that this example exists in a vacuum. Real projects have to compensate their constraints for things you may have not, or could ever, account for (like the availability of project resources, how the schedule matches with team and client calendars, or even the weather!).

Hurricane Ashton (but not really).

Keeping an eye on your butterflies

First and foremost, you should be aware of issues that may arise as best as you can at the beginning of a project, while you are still fleshing out the plan and direction. Doing so will allow you to create a reliable contingency plan in the likely event something changes in the future.

All that being said, things may still turn sour and projects may easily veer off-course. So what can you do?

Well, if you yourself are a project manager, your duty is to practice reactivity just as much as you practice proactivity. Creating back-up plans and back-up-back-up plans for any given situation is a great way to prepare for possible problem scenarios but being flexible with yourself and your team is just as important when dealing with an ever-changing project landscape.

If you are a client or someone relying on the services of a project manager and his firm, be it in-house or externally, be mindful and aware that any change that limits any of the initial six project constraints (Scope, Schedule, Quality, Budget, Resources, and Risk) should be approached with caution and an open mind in order not to ask for the impossible.

It’s only when project managers, resources, clients, and stakeholders all work together in harmony can a project truly be ready for any sudden changes, quelling the flaps of any menacing butterflies in the process.

Keep all of this in mind the next time you see one of these little guys in your backyard…