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Fast, Good, and Cheap: Pick Two

When people call consultants like me, they sometimes feel vulnerable. Perhaps they know some elusive business process is broken but they can’t put their finger on it. Or maybe they’ve found the problem but can’t fix it. And sometimes they’ve even tried to fix it themselves but have failed.


Let’s face it: Very few people really want to call a consultant. We are often the solution of last resort. Clients know they’re buying something that they can’t see touch (though sometimes they can smell it) and they have no idea the true market value of what they need.

In the absence of empirical information and transparency, we create models. Some models are good and some are bad. I consider the most insidious of all models to be the “Iron Triangle.”

The Iron Triangle is a game of constraints. Play opens with the consultant saying something like, “I totally understand where you’re coming from. But before we go any further, let me ask you a question. What’s most important to you here? Do you want fast work, good work, or cheap work? You can even pick two. But no one can give you all three, and if they promise you all three, they’re lying. It’s statistically proven that you can’t have all three. There’s even a Wikipedia article about it.”

Unfortunately, the potential client almost always plays along. “Money is not the issue here; we need this fast and we need it perfect.” Or, “Well I don’t have much of a budget, but this has to be ready for the big trade show in October.” Or, “I don’t care if it takes two years as long as it’s done right, but I have to manage cash flow.”

Let me start by saying that in most cases both parties believe in the Iron Triangle. This is not a conspiracy. Consultants aren’t always trying to trick you (but sometimes they are) and they aren’t always trying to get as much cash out of you as they can (but sometimes they are) and they aren’t always looking for excuses for poor quality or slow work (but sometimes they are). Most services companies honestly believe there are real constraints preventing fast, high-quality work from being delivered at a reasonable cost.

(Cussing starts here.)

Here’s the problem: The Iron Triangle is bullshit. There are real constraints, but they are all self-imposed and self-inflicted.

Turns out that professional services firms can totally deliver excellent work on a strict schedule and at a fair rate. It’s just really fucking hard to figure out. But once you’ve figured it out, it’s like everyone else is playing high school soccer and you’re Lionel Messi.

There are many reasons that most services companies can’t break the Iron Triangle. Like I said, it’s really fucking hard. But here are a few possible causes:

  •        Many firms focus on catching poor quality work instead of preventing poor quality work. Great talent with high personal standards is literally incapable of producing shit work. Firms shouldn’t hire people who produce shit work. Then they won’t need people, processes, and technology that exist only to catch shit work before it gets to the client. And they won’t have to do the work two or three different times. Many firms charge clients more for their best talent because they know they are going to lose money on other projects that the B-team is working (due to all the rework). Firms that don’t have a B-team can always promise good work.
  •        Many firms are slow because they don’t have an efficient engagement model. Maybe there’s too much process. Maybe there’s too little process. Maybe work changes hands too many times. Maybe works waits for people to break free from other projects. Maybe work starts and stops over and over again due to constant interruptions. Many firms charge clients more for fast work because they basically have to lock a good team in a leaky basement so they won’t be interrupted by all the other people who can’t seem to get anything done without them. The firm knows they are going to lose money on other projects because their best talent won’t be available to help put out fires. Clients are basically paying extra to overcome the firm’s inefficiency. Firms that don’t have a crappy process can always promise fast work — or at least as fast as it can honestly be done by humans working at peak velocity.
  •        Many firms are bad with money. It’s just that simple. Maybe they waste their money or maybe they are just greedy and can’t get enough. In either case, they shroud their costs and prices in mystery because they know in their hearts if the client knew where her money was going, she would freak out. Firms with transparent pricing can always promise a fair market rate. There’s nothing wrong with earning a fair profit on good work delivered on a strict schedule.

When a firm says it can’t deliver good work, on a tight schedule, at a fair price, they are basically admitting to a problem they can’t solve. The catch is that this problem is totally solvable. I know this because my firm charges a fair price for excellent work delivered at a high velocity every day (and our Net Promoter Score is always between 60 and 70). But we didn’t always. We used to live inside the Iron Triangle. And it took more than a year of heavy intellectual lifting and gut-wrenching decisions to transform our shop to an Agile Agency and break the Iron Triangle. And by the way, we needed a consultant, so we hired AgencyAgile ( And you know what? They never asked us to pick two.