, , , ,

Meet the Trilemma


Ouch!  Pointy!  A three horned Hebridean sheep, by Jim Champion, licence CC BY-SA 2.o.

I was thinking about the oft-cited software designer’s “trilemma”: fast, cheap, good.  The trilemma for the designer’s customer is that it is only possible for a project to be:

  • fast and cheap – can’t be good
  • good and cheap – can’t be fast
  • good and fast – can’t be cheap

The qualities contradict each other: good work will cost more as it requires more expertise and time.

Client: “I want high quality work, right away, for a low price”

Designer: “You can have it fast, cheap or good but not all three.  You need to pick the two that matter most!”

Client: “Eeek!!

The Trilemma and Special Collections

The trilemma is most commonly cited in the world of software design, but it crops up in any situation where clients are commissioning work: printing is a classic example.  And Special Collections!  Digitisation and digital projects spring to mind, along with cataloguing, exhibition design and a great deal more.

The difficulty of course is that our work so often has to be cheap or ‘free’.  So unless we are fortunate and/or have a supportive funder, we only have ‘good’ and ‘fast’ to play with.

Escape the Trilemma

  1. Manage user expectations so they learn not to expect all the qualities.
  2. Plan plan plan!  Effective planning means you can get things done ahead of time, so ‘fast’ can be taken out of the equation.  Or the bit that has to be ‘fast’can be a very small part of the project.
  3. OK is OK, good enough is good enough.  It’s common in Special Collections to be asked to do something at very short notice.  In such situations, the work just has to be ‘good enough’.  Yes, it could have been better if you’d had more notice, but you didn’t: it will be fine.  Do what worked before, have materials ready for such situations …
  4. Prioritise, chunk, scope.  Need to produce high quality work, but no funding?  It can’t be ‘fast’ in that situation.  Make the most of the time you have by setting priorities.
  5. Bypass it with creative thinking.  Maybe someone else can do the work, or there is some other way to deliver the desired result …

Baa! See above for my creator and CC licence.