The Iron Pyramid: A Practical Model For Priorities and Tradeoffs

      The Iron Pyramid: A Practical Model For Priorities and Tradeoffs

      Strategy and Priority

      Your short-term thinking is killing your organization's culture when your strategies only define what you will do. I define strategy as what we do, what we don't do, and why we make those choices. Priorities are what we choose to do next to execute on the strategy. However, leaders often focus on what they will do and ignore the more challenging and productive discussion about what they won't do. This muddies the waters and dilutes the impact of decisions on what to do.

      Let's look at a scenario that I've often run into:

      As a product team, let's say we have eight to-do items, but can only execute on three. Leadership chooses their top three. But, they continue to ask for updates on progress on the other five. The implication is that work is still happening on the others.

      Priorities are the order that we execute on the three items we agreed on. In an ideal world, we have a stack-ranked list and devote all of our efforts towards #1 until it's done. The reality is that you're usually making progress against all top priorities, but the majority of your effort is devoted to the #1 item. In the example above, priorities are also less clear because you need to be thinking about more things.

      How do you handle your priorities when progress is expected against these unprioritized items? I didn't have the answer, so I looked at an existing model: The Iron Triangle.

      The Iron Triangle

      The Iron Triangle is a metaphorical model intended to help leaders think about tradeoffs when discussing strategy and priorities. The Iron Triangle models three criteria: Time, Scope, and Resources.

      The Iron Pyramid: Time, Scope and Resources

      The Iron Pyramid: Time, Scope and Resources

      The concept is: if you change one criterion, the other two need to shift in response. For example, if you increase Scope and keep Resources the same, Time will need to increase to maintain the integrity of the triangle. Increase Resources and maintain Scope, and you can reduce the Time necessary. If you increase Scope, then Time and Resources need to adjust too.

      I found this model useful but not realistic. It's an ideal model and starting point, but couldn't put it into practice because of the challenges working with leaders who wouldn't take a stand on what's not getting done. I wanted a model that would be useful in discussing these tradeoffs.

      Thinking in Three Dimensions

      The first thing about the Iron Triangle that stuck out to me was that it was, well, two-dimensional. I mean, duh. But also metaphorically. I felt that other criteria were deserving of equal consideration when making decisions.

      Sacrificing Quality

      When I realized a third dimension was needed, it was apparent, based on my experience, that the unspoken sacrificed part was Quality.


      If you keep Time and Resources the same but increase Scope, Quality decreases. The Iron Triangle doesn't model this, but luckily we can extend that model into three dimensions to include Quality and create the Iron Tetrahedron. Sweet! We've got a better model; now, I wanted to put it to use.

      Note: I know tetrahedron is a crappy name for this model. We won't be using it much. Read on to learn why.

      The Iron Tetrahedron

      The Iron Tetrahderon: Time, Scope, Resources and Quality

      The Iron Tetrahderon: Time, Scope, Resources and Quality

      In practice, adding the concept of Quality helped drive a richer conversation. But it didn't achieve the goals I sought when working with leadership. These conversations would go something like this:

      Me: If we expand Scope and keep Time and Resources the same, the only area left to compromise is Quality. Is this what you're asking us to do?

      Executive: No! Of course, I care about Quality. The team will just need to work harder to deliver the added Scope and meet our Quality bar by the deadline.

      Damn it.

      A Stronger Pyramid

      It took me a long time to work through this, but I was determined to fix this model or find a better one that someone smarter than me had figured out. The realization of what was missing didn't hit me until we were developing our values for 1Brand, and I thought about what it really meant to live our values in practice:

      Shine, Empathy, Work-Life Harmonization, Stewardship, Fun.

      Leading the team, I needed to think about how I made tradeoffs in Time, Scope, Resources, and Quality while maintaining these values. And, that was the Aha! moment. Our values and the people who hold each other accountable are our Culture. When the exec in the example above said, "The team will just need to work harder to deliver," what they were actually saying was, "We'll compromise on Culture to maintain Time, Scope, Resources, and Quality." Culture was the fifth criterion.

      The Iron Pyramid

      Geometry to the rescue! Luckily, four-sided pyramids are a thing and work well as a model for this more realistic Iron Pyramid. This new model captures Culture, and I prefer to represent Culture as the base of the pyramid because without it, there's little point in the rest of the other four sides of Time, Scope, Resources and Quality.

      The Iron Pyramid: Time, Scope, Resources and Culture

      The Iron Pyramid: Time, Scope, Resources and Culture

      But, how do we put this into practice? You don't truly test a model or your values until you have to make tough choices. This happened at the end of 2019 when it became clear our beta functionality was going to take longer to complete than we thought, and resources were super tight.

      I could have pushed the team to work over the holidays when we said we'd take those off. There are any other number of ways I could have pushed, and because of the Culture we've built, the team probably would have delivered. In hindsight, as we're just starting to promote our beta, that compromise of our Culture wouldn't have created the results I wanted and would have compromised our Culture. That short-term decision would have compromised 1Brand's values.

      1Brand is a project of our startup studio, Permanence Labs. The vision for Permanence Labs is to build products that solve evergreen problems in a way that benefits society and leads to an enduring human civilization. Compromising our Culture to achieve short-term goals would have also been to compromise the larger vision. Damn it, why'd I have to set the bar so high? Because that's the scope of problem I feel is worth my time, and the worth the time of the team we've built.

      Now we have the Iron Pyramid to use as a model to hold ourselves accountable about the reality of what we decide we will, and we will not do. Hopefully, you find it helpful too.