Rethinking Project Management: Can High Quality Be Cheap?

03/07/2011 08:55 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Matt Cohen Interactive Marketer and Product Developer

There's a saying in project management that says you can have anything you want and it can be fast, cheap, and good... but you have to pick just two of those standards. In other words:

  • Your project can be done fast and well, but it will cost a lot.
  • Your project can be done fast and cheap, but it won't be any good.
  • Your project can be done cheaply and well, but it will take time.

Unfortunately this hard truth comes up a lot because people generally want to have all three. They're under a time crunch and need the work done yesterday (fast), they don't have any money in the budget to pay for it (cheap), but it's an important project and it needs to be of the highest quality (good)!

Good project management usually involves holding quality at a high standard while trying to control the time-line and the costs as much as possible. Of course, we've all seen good and cheap be sacrificed, but the one component that never seems to get ignored is fast. You would hope that good would be an absolute given, but people will give up quality (or pay through the nose) to have something done by tomorrow morning.

There is, however, an informative exception to this.

The power-pop band OK Go owes a lot of their success to their undeniable talent for making music videos that you have to see to believe. ("Have you seen the one where they dance on the treadmills? How about the one with the Rube Goldberg machine?") You don't just want to watch videos like that, you want to share them to everybody you know, which explains OK Go's huge success on YouTube.

The common thread that runs through all of their videos is that they seem to be willing to forgo fast in favor of making something that is both cheap and good. OK Go videos tend to look low-budget, but in a good way. They have a homemade appeal. But while they didn't invest a lot of money (relative to the quality of the output), they did invest a lot of time in planning, preparing, practicing, and shooting the videos.

It's worth noting that OK Go isn't just performing a balancing act between the three criteria, they are pushing it to extremes. They're not just giving up fast, they are investing in slow.

How many man-hours do you think went into creating this?

Old Spice did something similar when it created a series of online commercials featuring Isaiah Mustafa, the extremely funny (and shirtless) star of their "I'm on a horse" TV spot. Instead of making something remarkable by sinking a lot of time into the project, they pushed time to the other extreme--the online spots were shot insanely fast. About 100 different online ads - each of which featured Mustafa responding to a real Tweet or Facebook message - were all written and shot in single day.

So, what did they have to give up to get that much work done so quickly? They willingly sacrificed quality. Or rather, they redefined what qualifies as "good." To make the concept work, the ad agency (Weiden + Kennedy) wrote, shot, and posted on the fly. The client (Procter & Gamble) didn't approve any of the online spots. They had to sign off in advance and (GASP!) trust their agency to deliver something that would support the brand. I'm going to guess that the writers didn't do a lot of drafts for any given spot and that the director didn't do a lot of takes. Quality (especially quality control) went out the window. But that made a new aesthetic. Yes, compared to the quality of the original "I'm on a Horse" spot, the online ads are lackluster. But for a commercial personally directed at one single viewer, each ad was incredible. When you watch them, you understand the constraints and enjoy them for what they are: a funny execution of a remarkable idea.

There is a tendency to look at the fast/cheap/good model as an obstacle. The question becomes "What are we going to have to do without?" But it doesn't have to be that way. I remember when Richard Wilbur, who was the Poet Laureate at the time, spoke at my high school. One of the things he said was that the structure of a poem (such as the meter and the rhyme scheme) was a challenge that poets set for themselves. It can be difficult to express your ideas within the rigid structure of a sonnet, but working within limitations is what makes the results potentially exceptional. Yes, it would be nice to have unlimited resources, but setting constraints for yourself can often lead to inspiration.

Budgets and schedules are the natural constraints in business. How can you creatively use those constraints to achieve something remarkable?

Find more business insights from unlikely places at Unexpected Experts.