The "need three, pick two" rule

We were interviewing a Software Developer candidate last year, and he shared that he follows the “need three, pick two” rule of project management. When working on a project there are always three “needs”:  speed, cost, and quality. You can imagine them as a triangle, each as a leg. While we’d love to have all three, in reality we can only get two. We’re constantly forced to trade off one to get more of the others.

This isn’t a new idea, but I liked the simplicity of the framework. It’s straightforward and probably applicable to the work you do too. Having now been through a number of software releases we’ve seen this play out. If we build a feature too quickly, we risk sacrificing our quality standards. But when we plan appropriately we nail it (less speed, but more quality).

We also see this in the RFP’s that are run on ThreeFlow. When a broker sets a due date with a shorter turnaround time (1 - 1.5 weeks) they sacrifice the attention-to-detail (quality) or competitiveness (cost) of what they receive back from the carriers. Turns out that writing “RUSH” in a cover memo doesn’t improve results. Conversely, when a broker puts thought into what they’d like quoted, and provides the carriers a little more time (2.5 - 3 weeks) the market responds with competitive and accurate bids. The same logic applies to the relationship a group rep has with their underwriter. Garbage in, garbage out.

I appreciate that it’s easy to armchair quarterback from behind a computer. In reality, external circumstances (clients) put us in difficult situations. When this happens it might be helpful to remember the “need three, pick two” rule and ask the client to consider the same. That might sound something like this...

“Hey Bob, you know that I’d run through a brick wall for you, which is what I plan to do… but just so we’re aligned, how do your priorities stack up if we were to rank them - time sensitivity, cost, coverage? Something else?”

If answered honestly, you should hear some version of “I want three, but I’ll take two”. We should always strive for the trifecta, but most reasonable people acknowledge the tradeoffs of attaining fast, cheap, and perfect.

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