Good, Fast, or Cheap… pick two.

When I first saw this I thought it was genius.  A cool little project management axiom… but does it bear closer scrutiny?

The thinking is something like this:

  • If you make something cheap and fast you’ll need a lot of cheap people so it won’t be good.
  • If you want to make it cheap and good you’ll use cheap people and let them take their time to get it right, so not quick.
  • If you make something good and finish it fast you need the very best people and plenty of them so they won’t be cheap.

Now some cracks start to appear in the underlying assumptions…

Tick, tock... steam, steam...

Cheap/Fast assumes a large team of people is always quicker than a small one but I’m not convinced of that.  A large team requires excellent communication, clear goals regularly revised and first class leadership.  That combination of things is hard to achieve consistently. Communication becomes exponentially harder the bigger the team gets and layers of managers and team leaders can muddy the message.  Ensuring a large team understands the current goals and is fearless in reporting failures is very tricky and failure can easily be hidden.  True leadership means having a connection with all the people who work for you and that is harder to do with a big team.

Cheap/Good assumes cheap people are poor at their jobs.  This is clearly untrue as our experience of Eastern European migrants in the UK indicates.  Work ethic is a strongly cultural trait in terms of pay, hours, effort and quality.  A person from a country with subsistence wages and long hours of hard labour is likely to find even the worst UK jobs are an improvement from their low baseline.  As a result they are likely to be grateful for that improvement and that will show as diligence and quality.

Good/Fast assumes good people are expensive and that expensive people are good but I’m not sure either is universally true.  Experienced people may be at the upper limit of the pay for their skills but we are are conflating expensive with cost effective here.  A big team can be a burden where a small experienced team can bond, communicate and co-ordinate very easily so this may well give you cheap as well.  However, expensive people are not necessarily good, there are always a few individuals who are ballsy enough to demand an obscene amount of money which increases people’s perception of their ability and like the emperor’s new clothes it takes a rare individual to point it out.  All consultancy companies rely on being reassuringly expensive.

You can have good, fast and cheap if you keep the team small, use a blend of carefully vetted experts with less qualified but enthusiastic people. Have clear but revisable goals, great communication and good leadership.