Increasing Autonomy at the Edge Through Constraint-based solutions

“Solving For The Golden Triangle” is a term I coined several years ago to serve as a counter to the classic “Iron Triangle” of Project Management (scope, cost, schedule). The Golden Triangle serves as a simple guideline for leaders in the organization to help make decisions and to understand what we mean when we talk about providing an environment that allows for autonomy in decision making.

The Why

Once upon a time at Headspring, there was a “no vacation policy” policy. The policy was “take time off when you want to or need to.” The net result was, people took very very little voluntary time off, and felt bad every time they did. The general feedback was “I’m afraid I might take too much time off and get in trouble. I mean, there’s got to be a limit, right?” After two years of that, it was clear we had to put some more structure around our time off benefits and how we administrated it, so that we could provide everybody with the appropriate amount of guidance to make their own decisions. Anybody who knows me knows that I will plan and detail things out far past the point of reason, if left to my own devices. There’s a fine line between appropriate guidance and restrictive rules. “Log the previous day’s work every morning by 9am” is appropriate guidance. “Log your time at the end of every hour” gives us more precise and timely updates, but is overly restrictive.

On a daily basis, everybody at Headspring is called on to make decisions. “Is this candidate hireable?” “Should we work with this company?” “Is this project plan too risk-heavy?” “Should I refactor this code or work on another feature?” “Is 6 cups of coffee before 7am too many?” (The answer to that last one is “Maybe for you. I call that “A slow start”). When making decisions, or to gauge if an idea is reasonable or not, you need a quick and easy framework to apply.

The What

The Golden Triangle is really simple. If you have to make a decision on what to do, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Is it good for the client?
  2. Is it good for the team?
  3. Is it good for the company?
Maybe I should’ve colored it….gold…

If you can answer “yes” to all three, you’ve got a no-brainer on your hands — go do it. And, pretty much anything you want to do that’s a “yes” on all fronts, is something you can go do without having to check in with a whole bunch of other people. The space where those three intersect is your zone of autonomy. Go forth and do great things!

So, why is this triangle Golden? Because it’s like the “Golden Rule” — Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s as simple and universal as possible and hard to argue with. Unlike the Iron Triangle, which defines project constraints, the Golden Triangle gives you freedom — inside that space, you can confidently move from decision to decision, knowing that you’re staying within the parameters that make it a “good idea”.

Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad (with apologies to Meatloaf)

So what do you do when you can’t get all three? Well, then you’ve got some work to do. I’ll give you an example from Headspring history.

We had a period of time in 2012 where we had entered into a lot of engagements that were more staff-augmentation in their nature than solution-based delivery. We were on Time and Materials contracts, we were interleaved with existing team members on longer running engagements, and we were struggling mightily with trying to meet client’s expectations. We were having to offer concessions left and right — reduced rates, write-off time for missed expectations, deferred payments, that sort of thing. Our contract and selling structure and our delivery model were not in alignment.

So we made a short-term shift in our delivery model to get things working, and we decided that, in the short run — we would start deliberately deploying our people out to work on-site at clients’ locations.

Was it good for the clients? Absolutely. The increased face-time improved our quality of delivery and allayed their concerns about what we were doing for them. It tightened up communication between team members and accelerated the pace of delivery.

Was it good for the company? Yes. It stabilized an issue we were having with client engagement which was affecting us financially, and got our financial returns to a healthier place.

Was it good for the team? No. People come to Headspring to work with other talented people. They don’t work at Headspring to be farmed out and effectively “work” at all kinds of other places all around town, with no home office to come back to.

What we had to do next was answer two things, and this is the other valuable part of the Golden Triangle:

The answer to the first one was that, rather than just say “go work on site from now on,” we added the following stipulations, and secured buy-in from our clients:

So, that makes things better, but still not a “yes” on all three corners of The Golden Triangle. We had to do more, and make changes that would require more time. That was the essence of the second part — seeing what we needed to change to be able to have a delivery model that fit inside the Golden Triangle.

The root issue was, our selling approach and our delivery model weren’t in alignment. In the short run, we modified our delivery model to align with what we were selling. But to effect a long term change, and get back inside the Triangle, we had to change how we sold our services. That meant actually changing our messaging — turning our “work from our office, not yours” from a point of contention to a part of our value proposition. Moving off T&M contracts and onto fixed-scope, fixed price delivery when we could, so we’d have more control of project decisions and less micro-observation by clients. Going back to existing clients at the start of new contracts and re-negotiating engagement terms.

It took about 9 months of active work, chipping away at it contract-by-contract, client-by-client, to get back to primarily home-office execution on projects. Now we can confidently say that our delivery model fits inside the Golden Triangle — good for our clients, good for our team, and good for the company.

Application and Summary

To summarize – any decision you need to make, large or small, ask yourself:

If the answer to them all is “yes” then you’ve got a winner!

If the answer to any of them is “no”, first consider — have I looked at all the options? Is this the best option of all the ones in front of me? If so, ask yourself the following for each “no”

  1. What could I do now make that result better? — this gives you your short term mitigation.
  2. What would I have to change to get a solution that’s a firm “yes”? — this gives you your long term improvement plan.

Securing buy-in and persuading others is a topic for another day, but I will say this to wrap things up — if you bring a plan to the table and you’re prepared to show everybody that it’s the best possible plan, how it’s good for them, recognize where it’s weak, call out the mitigation plan, and also identify a long-term plan to ensure more systemic strength in the future, you’re probably going to have everyone’s buy-in.