Good, fast, or cheap: Can you really pick two?

There’s a saying that clients can have good, fast, or cheap. Pick two, but then the third will be whatever it has to be based on the other two choices. You can have good and fast if you’re willing to spend a lot of money. You can have fast and cheap, but the quality will be poor. You might even be able to get good and cheap, if you’re willing to wait a long time.

A variation on this theme is the iron triangle. You draw a triangle with vertices labeled “features”, “time” and “resources.” If you make two of the sides longer, the third has to become longer too. Here goodness is defined as a feature set rather than quality, but the same principle applies.

There’s a problem with this line of reasoning: no matter what clients say, they want quality. They may say they want fast and cheap, and if you tell them you’ll sacrifice quality to deliver fast and cheap, you’ll be a hero — until you deliver. Then they want quality. As Howard Newton put it

People forget how fast you did a job, but they remember how well you did it.

Sometimes you can cut features as long as you do a good job on the features that remain, but only to a point. Clients are not going to be happy unless you meet their expectations, even if those expectations are explicitly contradicted in a contract. You can tell a client you’ll cut out frills to give them something fast and cheap, and they’ll gladly agree. But they still want their frills, or they will want them. The client may be silently disappointed. Or they may be vocally disappointed, demanding excluded features for free and complaining about your work. Eventually you learn what features to insist on including, even if a client says they can live without them.

9 thoughts on “Good, fast, or cheap: Can you really pick two?

  1. John –

    This wisdom is too often learned only through experience. Thanks for putting it on your blog so that readers might read, absorb and avoid some of the unpleasant experiences associated with taking your clients at their word when they elect cheap and fast.

    Jim Archer

  2. I have a friend who works in a lab with lots of DOD grants. He doesn’t actually do military stuff, but it’s environmental research that is relevant to the military as well as others. Anyway, he told me that the Army and Navy granting agencies have very short time horizons. In his words, if they could choose between a correct answer in two years or a wrong answer in one year, they’ll prefer the wrong answer every time.

  3. So then, it seems that fast and cheap have to be tempered to a reasonable level such that “good” can meet a bare minimum. I’ve found that many clients don’t really understand the level of detail and attention that must go into software (and subsequently the cost). Therein lies the rub.

  4. I love your comment: “People forget how fast you did a job, but they remember how well you did it.” I wish people would understand this when they ask their programmers to meet impossible schedules and release the software no matter what!


  5. I think you can actually only pick one. Fast won’t be cheap or good (quality always slides when a job is done fast); cheap won’t be good or fast (most are less inclined to rush a low budget job); good won’t be fast or cheap (quality takes time and money).

  6. Nick, you make a good point, too. It is frustrating when as a designer or developer you can’t convince anyone that doing good work takes time and time costs money. Fast is never good. Cheap assures fast and eliminates good. Good requires time and money.

  7. Scope can be sacrificed in many cases. On the content side of a product, you deliver a whole layer at a time. If you deliver a part of a layer, people will notice where it wasn’t delivered.

    A triangle could be more triangles. With minimal marketable functionality, deliver something that lets the user create some value. Then, deliver more.

  8. 98% of people can accept cheap and good but not fast. 1% of people can accept good and fast but not cheap. The last 1% of people accept cheap and fast but when the results you give them are no good, they grumble and ask u why its no good.

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