I was working as a middle manager in a custom manufacturing facility many years ago when the foreman and I got into a discussion about senior management and their expectations. I expressed frustration about a recent list of needs I had been given; when I asked the giver to prioritize the list, she had stared at me blankly. I rephrased, pointing out that I did not have time to complete everything, and therefore needed to know which of the items on the list were most important.
“All of them,” she replied matter-of-factly. I tried a few more times to connect her to the reality of the situation. I did not have sufficient resources to accomplish her tasks by the deadline. Nothing seemed to penetrate the cranium. I ended up prioritizing the list myself, and was forced to defend my choices the next day when the list, as predicted, was not completed.
My friend and colleague empathized, and shared with me a mantra which I have used to great effect since then. “There are three elements to production,” he said. “You can have it fast, good, or cheap.”
I have also heard this elaborated as “one comes at the expense of the other two”. I can make it fast and good, but it won’t be cheap. I can make it good and cheap, but it will take a while. And of course, anything made fast and cheap probably won’t be very high quality, and may even fail.
One thing I have learned is that the “Fast, Good, or Cheap” explanation for things works much better as preventative medicine. Bitter feelings can arise otherwise, when the message can sound like I Told You So. The strategy must be to identify the primary interest of the primary taskmaster, and balance that against competing interests. An artist may want a superior quality, but the accountant may have a limit, or the project manager may need it done by Monday. Getting involved early enough in the process allows guiding these competing interests toward a consensus directive that is actually possible to accomplish.
It is important to point out that in practice this is not a simple choice of one element. Emphasizing the word “or” in “Fast, Good, or Cheap” merely sets the principals against each other. This is not consensus and is probably a rehash of several earlier meetings. The better course is to refine the expectations and create a range of possible outcomes in which everyone will be satisfied. It’s a bit like trying to stand at the top of a conical pile of sand. You would like to stand at the very top, but perhaps if you can be somewhere within a few feet of the top, the results will be satisfactory to everyone.
When I get an assignment, whether in manufacturing or providing a service, I do not accept the initial information given to me as indisputable fact. I trust that due diligence has been done, but I use my particular skill set to verify that the resources match the expectations. In the rare case when things line up perfectly, I can get to work right away. In most cases, I need a meeting with the principals. When I explain the three elements, I point out that I can guarantee one, will probably get two, but that all three is very unusual. That starts the conversation.
Good management is about these conversations, and about building the personal trust that gives the conversations credibility.