What does it mean to make project trade-offs? I thought some projects just get told what to do and they go do it and just do the best they can.
Trade-offs are the result of a process where the team evaluates options for the project and decides which approach best meets the project's goals. We've all had situations where there were choices to be made and we had to decide which was the "best" or "right" choice for the situation. Do I spend the time to study for an exam, or go to the party? Do I spend more to get a fancier car, or save that money for getting to eat out more? Project managers are faced with
difficult situations where the company wants more than can be achieved within the time or cost or resource constraints.
Yes, project managers do get told to "get it done" and to find a way to make it all happen. Management or marketing or customers want the shortest possible schedule. Other groups are pushing for lowest cost or budget. And everyone wants as many features as possible to satisfy a range of customers. But of course resources are limited! If explicit tradeoffs aren't made—if everyone enters into the project just trying to make everyone happy, "doing the best we can"—usually the result is less than what anyone wanted, and there's a bad feeling all around.
So what can you do when you know the project team can't meet project all the expectations? Take the time to review the business objectives and the project expectations using a framework that lets you look at alternatives for different mixes of scope, schedule, and resources to find the best balance among all the goals and constraints. See our guideline Planning and Scheduling: Make Trade-offs and Optimize, the Project Alternatives Tradeoff Table and the Project Flexibility Matrix, which provide processes and tools for making tradeoffs. They help a team do a thorough, fact-based evaluation of options, and make decisions to resolve conflicts between project expectations and reality.