The magic triangle

The magic triangle

Balancing time, cost and quality is important in product development. The magic triangle shows us that the three are interdependent, so we must always keep an eye on how they affect each other. We can't simply focus on one aspect during our projects and neglect the other two. Although this is the easiest thing to do, it almost guarantees that our product won't be competitive in the marketplace. A well-rounded product has a balanced mix between its most important characteristics that helps create an affinity for it. Building the perfect product at a cost noone would want to buy just prepares us for our next failure. Thinking that we can afford to spend more time on our work without spending more money on it is also rarely true. Cutting down on costs means that we allow ourselves less time while potentially compromising on quality. Companies like Amazon prefer making big losses in the short term while investing in a future that will more than compensate for them, giving them time advantage. Others optimize their operations for short-term efficiency that adversely affects their prospects. Everyone has a unique profile that is inscribed in the magic triangle, even if that might not seem so on the surface.

Achieving a balance becomes harder the tighter the constraints are in which we need to work. With time, we may have other projects competing for our attention. With cost, we may not have the necessary financial resource to bring our project to completion. With quality, we may not have the necessary know-how and experience to create something of high value. We are fighting against our constraints on a daily basis and it's unlikely that an outside subsidy will determine whether we succeed or not, especially in the long term. One day we may prefer investing in one dimension; another day—in another. This balancing act requires a conscious decision every day, and the diversion from what we thought was the right path makes it then harder to continue on it when needed. Moreover, such decisions can be mentally exhausting and can leave us feel that we aren't making any progress at all. But this isn't necessarily true: sometimes, we have to learn something repeatedly in order to remember it. With learning a new language, no new word will be remembered without encountering it at least multiple times, checking its meaning in a dictionary based on a specific context, flipping the same pages every single time until they wear off. We don't remember only the word, but the situations in which its use will be justified. When we start to subconsciously bind the right words to the right situations, we have learned to use the language; our internal voice has found a meandering way to arrive at a point that our mind could directly foresee. But this won't happen without coping with our magic triangle, because it will pull us in different directions. We will be many times discouraged, exhausted, unbelieving, but we need to have the courage to go back on the road where we left and beat it as long as needed until we see new contours on the horizon. Then it won't take long to see us motivated again.

As the triangle suggests, reaching peaks might not always be a good idea. But we usually can't see clearly where we are without the help and feedback of other people. If they specialize in different peaks, it might be hard to keep a balance without frequent discussions that keep everyone grounded and aligned in a single direction. But then, the resultant magic triangle of all effort will be an overlay of the individual profile triangles of all people on the team. If these triangles have become lines due to overspecialization, their cut will be the empty set (or the orthocenter) instead of a maximal surface. This means that even if everyone is extremely good at something, the combined product can still be a failure.

We can try to convert the magic triangle from equilateral to scalene, but this will just make relationships unrealistic. We must assume that all three dimensions are equally important for the success of a product and then seek the variables that affect these dimensions. We can then put weights on the variables and multiply them with a score of the extent to which we adhere to them. This way we can analyze how we reached a particular profile while having the control mechanisms to change it with respect to our current situation. If we think that our initial assumption was wrong, we have to be able to prove this by contradiction.

We can use the triangle to evaluate the feasibility of our projects in combination with portfolio analysis and product attribute equalizers (both of which I shortly described in my book). But it's naive to think that using only these instruments will lead to ultimate results. Sometimes it makes sense to invent our own criteria and act on our findings in a way that would seem nonsensical or illogical to others. Logic won't necessarily carve a unique polygon within the triangle. Sadly, it's often being too logical that puts us in trouble.