Features, quality, or date. Choose any two.

Recently a peer and I were talking about the phrase in the title of this post. We both heard it at Microsoft, and I know I heard it at startups after I left too.

If you haven’t heard it before, the idea is as follows. There are three properties of a product:

  • Delivery date
  • Key features
  • Product quality
Generally when building a product, one of them gets cut, so you wind up usually only delivering two:
  • Features and quality, but you miss the ship date.
  • Ship it on time, with the right features, but poor quality.
  • Ship it on time, with good quality, but you did it by cutting features.
We got to talking a little bit about it, and sort of considered some basic principles. For some reason, for years, I used to think that if you visualized it, they were points on a triangle – like here:

But the more we discussed it, the more we realized that these attributes are actually sides of the triangle. That is, in a well balanced product that you’ve planned well, kept the quality bar up on, and set a realistic ship date expectation, your results look like this:

But the reality is that most products look like this (with one of the properties on the short side, anyway):

Fundamentally, though, the product will always be an isosceles triangle. If it isn’t balanced on all sides, at least two will be equal. Generally even if two side start getting cut, the third does as well. So if you cut features and quality to a certain bloodletting point, odds are you’ve screwed your ship date anyway, so you’re back to an equilateral – if smaller – triangle.

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  1. […] team, to the customer, and to the long-term success of your product line and your company – features, quality, or date. What is viable to you? What’s the bare minimum? What would you rather leave on the cutting […]