Good, Fast and Cheap: Pick Two

Life is about trade-offs. One more bite of that delicious ice cream means more calories. Buying that expensive suit means a regular dry cleaning bill. Spending more time at work means less time with family & friends.

The same is true of building products. Which is why we have the project triangle.

It basically says that if you are building a product, you can build it good and fast, or good and cheap, or fast and cheap – but not good, fast, and cheap. In other words – Good, Fast, and Cheap: pick two.

Why can’t you have all three? Typically because of resource, time, and cost constraints. If you had an unlimited supply of each, then, well, send me and email and let’s be friends! hehe.

Another way to describe this project management concept is to think of it this way:

  • If you build it good and cheap, meaning of high quality and within a tight budget, then it will take a long time (it will not be fast).
  • If you build it good and fast, meaning of high quality and very quickly, then it will be fairly expensive (it will not be cheap).
  • If you build it fast and cheap, meaning very quickly and within a tight budget, then it will not be of high quality (it will not be good).

This is a typical problem for any entrepreneur. You want all three, but know you can’t. So which trade-off is the right one to make?

I believe it depends on the stage of your business. Let’s take a web start-up, for example.

  1. In the ideation stage, where you are still forming your idea and doing research into its viability, it may be important to build a proof of concept to test it with potential users. At this stage, quality isn’t very important; you’ll have time to build it right later. For now, you just to make sure a market actually exists for your product. Also, you don’t have much money yet because you’re just starting out. Therefore, you want it fast and cheap.

  2. The next stage is building the first version (or beta) of your product. Just as with before, it is crucial to get your product out the door and into the hands of consumers quickly. But you also want enough features & quality to be a good product. If your first version is weak, consumers will ignore you and competitors will surpass you. Start-ups used to go for good and fast at this stage, with lots of VC-based money. Personally, I think the sweet spot is fast, fairly cheap, and pretty good (listed in priority order). Picture the dot floating somewhere in the middle of the triangle, though a bit closer to fast and cheap.

  3. The next stage is the next version of your product. This would involve iterative cycles of consumer feedback, new feature development, and bug fixes. Where the prior stage targeted innovators, this stage is aimed at early adopters, as defined by Crossing the Chasm. There is much debate over what the trade-offs should be in this stage, but I tend to favor cheap, fairly good, and pretty fast (listed in priority order). Most companies probably aren’t rolling in the dough by version two or three yet, unless you’re Microsoft (MSFT) or Apple (AAPL). So cheap is always a highly-prioritized constraint. Speed is still important, but not as much as quality now. The dot is still floating in the middle of the triangle, but now closer to good and cheap.

  4. When the product and industry mature enough to begin enticing the early & late majority, then it’s time to focus on quality. This crowd isn’t as tech-savvy or tolerant of bugs & difficult-to-use products. So now it’s important to provide them with a high quality solution. Hopefully, you’ll have enough income to be able to hire more resources now. Depending on your industry, you can be good and cheap or – especially if you’re in the high-tech world – good and fast.

Quick disclaimer: I realize that sometimes it’s important to denote a fourth constraint too: scope. Many project managers do this and I think that’s a great tactic as well.

What do you think? How would you make these trade-offs?

Author: Mike Lee

An idealistic realist, humanistic technologist & constant student.

6 thoughts on “Good, Fast and Cheap: Pick Two”

  1. Dude. You have no idea how many times a day I need to remind my product managers about this. Would think they would know it already too!

  2. It’s surprising how many times this concept is forgotten, by all roles. Some product managers keep pushing for more features without increasing resources, some designers keep pushing for more time without realizing the business trade-offs, and some developers keep pushing for high-quality code without realizing it’s just throw-away code.

    Fortunately, I’ve worked some great project managers who’ve explicitly asked their teams to make these trade-offs before starting a project – then reminded them of their trade-off decisions along the way.

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