The Consultant’s Iron Triangle

October 2, 2020 Dawn Oliveira

We often hear about the project management “iron triangle” – a set of three interrelated constraints (scope, timeline, and cost) that impact quality and successful outcomes – but front-line delivery consultants have their own balancing act to do. While strong technical and interpersonal skills are core competencies to master, the differentiator between a good technologist and a great technology consultant is often the ability to strike a healthy balance between the competing needs of three core stakeholder groups: themselves, their employer, and their customer. 

Competing Priorities 

To better understand this concept, consider the key drivers of each stakeholder group:

The Challenge of Balance 

As you might imagine, the diverse objectives among these stakeholder groups can often work against one another. For example, in an effort to maximize ROI during an implementation a customer may ask for extra meetings and working sessions that fall outside normal business hours. Working extended hours or into the evening comes at odds with a consultant’s need for work-life balance, and the unplanned hours result in lost revenue to the consultant’s employer. That said, if the consultant responds by refusing the customer’s request outright then customer satisfaction and the opportunity for repeat business could be jeopardized. 

Scales of justice


In another example, your employer may identify a goal to increase revenue by encouraging the sales team to quickly close more deals, and as a result has sold a project that was under-scoped. The consultant feels compelled to task extra work to the developer team to meet deadlines and becomes frustrated at delays. This causes a breakdown in peer relationships within the delivery team, and ultimately a change order is required in order to complete the project. The customer is upset about failing to close the project on-budget and refuses to be used a referral which harms the employer’s reputation in future sales pursuits. 

A Familiar Solution 

The examples above demonstrate how successful outcomes become endangered when the competing needs of the core stakeholder groups are out of balance. This solution to this phenomenon can be illustrated by understanding the consultant’s own version of the “iron triangle”. 


Similar to the classic Project Management Iron Triangle referenced earlier, this model represents the interrelated priorities a consultant must learn to balance in order to not only perform their job successfully, but to do so under a variety of circumstances with consistent outcomes for each stakeholder group. 

The Consultant’s Iron Triangle in Action 

The following are suggested competencies to aid in the successful management of the Consultant’s Iron Triangle. Each competency includes a brief description, real-life examples of how you might implement them, and the impacts of doing so. 


Time Management 

Effective time management in a consulting context can often be referred to as the ability to “work to task”. It involves structuring your workday and duties against the billable allocations of your assigned project(s) and being proactive to both utilize and guard that time. 

Examples: 

  • Fulfill, but not exceed, your weekly allocation of billable hours. 
  • Communicate appropriately with your Project Manager if you have fulfilled your allocation of billable hours but have not completed your assigned tasks.  
  • Delegate and/or re-assign tasks within the delivery team to balance workload. 
  • Start and end internal and external meetings on time – use a parking lot and refocus conversation when needed. 

Impacts:

Setting and Enforcing Expectations

While it may feel counterintuitive at first, setting and abiding by clearly defined expectations builds trust and fosters a culture of transparency. 

Examples: 

  • Set an agenda and take notes during all meetings you lead – share notes in a central location. 
  • Document action items (internal and external) and name an owner and due date – always ask the owner whether the proposed due date is feasible. 
  • Monitor progress regularly, and if stalled, flag and follow up with owners – identify blockers and next steps. 
  • Be clear about what work/deliverables are planned (avoid the word “scope”) – capture outlying requests as backlog requirements. 
  • Admit when you don’t know the right answer and commit to following up. 

Impacts: 


Openness to Feedback


A culture of feedback is a culture of growth. The more frequently and readily you learn to give and receive feedback, the more quickly you’ll identify the strengths to hone and the weaknesses to overcome. 

Examples: 

  • After big presentations (e.g. discovery, demos, etc.) ask the customer how they felt it went and what could be improved. 
  • If your development team is not meeting expectations, ask if a different meeting time or communication channel would be helpful. 
  • Listen for themes your customers and colleagues are repeating - some people aren’t comfortable being direct but may drop “hints” about what they want or need from you. 
  • Ask your project manager and internal project team members for feedback when you meet with them one-on-one. Assume all feedback is constructive and try to find the lesson in it. 
  • Give respectful, unsolicited feedback in person wherever you can. Request feedback twice as often as you give it. 

Impacts: 

Risk Response

Risk is a natural occurrence within the project lifecycle and learning to respond to it appropriately can provide a shortcut to successful outcomes. There are five key approaches to managing risk: Accept, Avoid, Mitigate, Transfer, and Exploit. 

Examples: 

Your customer wants to adopt an emerging business solution as part of their technology implementation, but the feature release date is tentatively slated to occur at the end of the Build phase. This creates an inherent risk to project success which can be responded to in one of the following ways: 

  • Accept: Continue with the project as planned knowing that if the feature is not released on the anticipated date, the project timeline may be impacted, and a change order extension will be required. 
  • Avoid: Convince the customer to omit the new feature from their current implementation and add it on as a future phase enhancement once its released. 
  • Mitigate: Continue with the project as planned, but work with the customer to define an interim workaround that can be leveraged if the feature release is delayed. 
  • Transfer: Recommend that the customer directly hire the solution provider to implement the feature as an add-on to the wider implementation. 
  • Exploit: Negotiate with the solution provider to enroll the customer as a pre-release/beta tester of the new feature in exchange for early access and reduced pricing.  

Impacts: 

Conclusion 

Whether you’re new to consulting or a seasoned veteran, chances are you’ve encountered the challenges posed by these competing stakeholder priorities. While some situations are easy to negotiate with a bit of grit and creative thinking – the path the repeatable, successful outcomes is found by “threading the needle” through the Consultant’s Iron Triangle and mastering the key techniques of time management, expectation setting, feedback, and risk response. 

In the spirit of feedback: Which are you most excited to implement? What others would you add? 

About the Author

Dawn Oliveira

Dawn Oliveira, Principal Consultant, is a 9x Certified Salesforce Consultant with a Master's Certificate in Business Analysis. With nearly a decade of experience in CRM transformation, Dawn is passionate about optimizing business systems to accelerate organizations towards achieving their missions

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