Three dots representing good cheap and fast, and a fourth empty dot.

The Myth of ‘Good, Cheap, Fast’

Those of us who make things inevitably encounter that client who needs a “kick butt solution,” for very little money… by tomorrow. And when we were young, naive contractors, most of us tried valiantly to deliver on that; usually failing in some key way. We lost money on the job, we missed the deadline, or worst of all — maybe our work sucked.

Then one day we heard someone more experienced push back at that client and say, “Good, cheap, fast. Pick two.”

Boom. Like a ton of bricks the pure rationality of that line hit your chest. It was like receiving access to some glowing, golden get out of jail free card of the Gods. It lifted you from contractual suffocation, it unlocked your manacles of professional servitude and gave you a real negotiating shield with which to defend yourself, and your work.

You thought, “…OMG, that’s it!”

We all did.

But over the years I have found that that rule is incorrect. I have seen how living rigidly by that trio of adjustments hobbles your potential and your service to clients. It sounds good for sure, but somewhere between fifty and a hundred projects later you discover it’s weakness. That it nets out too pat and incomplete. That it’s just not that easy.

Because, and hold on to your pants, you can indeed have it good, cheap and fast.

You can indeed have it good, cheap AND fast.

And that’s because there is a fourth adjustment.

That’s right, this is a four-legged chair. Not a three-legged stool.

The problem with this fourth adjustment is that it isn’t some cute, pat adjective that flows poetically with our meme-friendly “good, cheap, fast”. In fact acknowledging it will probably forever ruin the sharp, pithy nature of that saying for you altogether.

If it’s recognized at all I think most of us inconsiderately sweep this fourth adjustment under the “good” umbrella. But with experience you discover it doesn’t belong there. It’s too significant; it belongs on it’s own.

Because this fourth adjustment can be tuned to defend the integrity of the original three.

That fourth adjustment is: Scope.

Scoping a project differently than originally defined can indeed result in a project that is all three: good, cheap and fast.

A simpler project has a chance. And rescoping or scaling down doesn’t mean a weaker project. It doesn’t mean it’s the opposite of “good”. Smaller, simpler can be rendered with amazing results. It doesn’t mean you have to abandon key features altogether; maybe there is a better idea than the client asked you to build. Or maybe the scope of a project can be phased, for example, broken into smaller pieces, prioritized, and planned over time. Does that mean we didn’t do it “fast”? Well, no, we produced the rescoped, mission-critical phase of the project on schedule.

We so often think of the projects and problems that come from clients as if they’re solid objects. As if they’re unchangeable. As if the client’s project scope and definition is irrefutably correct. At which point “Good, cheap, fast” might be necessarily accurate. But clients are humans, and every project is a sculpture from its inception through production. And your involvement can reshape not only the work— but the very ask the client brought to you in the first place.

If you’re going to engage in mutually modifying a client’s project plan you do need to know your stuff. You need to know the client, you need to know their priorities, mission and business. Or you need to be good at working your client through the thought process themselves. This can all be daunting to be fair, but that’s the job.

Scope and scale are core adjustments you can counsel your client to make when they come to you, and in so doing you can indeed have it all, “good, cheap and fast.”

Just scoped differently.