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What are the specifications and constraints?

When working on any project, it is critical to understand the specifications and constraints from the very beginning. The specifications lay out what exactly needs to be delivered, while the constraints identify any limitations or requirements that must be adhered to during the process. Having clear specifications and constraints is crucial for ensuring the successful completion of a project according to the desired goals and timeline.

What are specifications?

Specifications refer to the detailed requirements or features that a product, service, or project must have or fulfill. They lay out the agreed upon conditions that must be met in order for the work to be considered complete and successful. Specifications serve as a guide for the team working on the project and identify metrics for quality control and acceptance testing.

Some examples of common specifications include:

  • Product features or capabilities
  • Software requirements and functionality
  • Service standards and deliverables
  • Project budgets and timelines
  • Material, equipment, or labor requirements

Specifications should be as detailed and unambiguous as possible. They may include technical specifications, performance specifications, design specifications, and functional specifications that fully define the scope of work. Clear specifications help set appropriate expectations for what constitutes project success.

Elements of Good Specifications

Effective specifications have some common characteristics and elements that ensure they provide value. These include:

  • Accuracy – The specifications precisely reflect the customer, stakeholder, or project requirements without ambiguity.
  • Measurable – Requirements can be quantified, tested, and verified objectively.
  • Complete – All necessary requirements are detailed for their impact on the project.
  • Realistic – Specs can be reasonably achieved within project constraints.
  • Clear – Uses simple, straightforward language that is understandable to all parties.

Specifications should also be accompanied by documentation that explains the rationale, assumptions, calculations, and decisions behind them. Stakeholders should formally agree to the specs before project work begins.

What are constraints?

Project constraints refer to any limitations, restrictions, or boundaries that may limit the options and resources available to the project team. While specifications tell what must be done, constraints identify restrictions on how it can be done. Common constraints include:

  • Budget limits on expenditures
  • Deadlines and timelines for delivery
  • Access to required resources or personnel
  • Geographic restrictions or legal regulations
  • Technology, equipment, or data standards
  • Product size, weight, or space restrictions

Properly identifying project constraints reduces risks by ensuring expectations align with what’s achievable. It also encourages the team to maximize creativity and innovation within constraint boundaries. Types of constraints include:

Schedule Constraints

Schedule constraints impose project deadlines, milestones, delivery dates, or time windows. This defines the timeframe available to complete the work. Schedule constraints may involve:

  • Project completion deadlines
  • Milestone deadlines for key phases
  • Amount of time available for certain tasks
  • Hours when work can be performed
  • Seasonal factors that limit timing
  • Due dates for project deliverables

Resource Constraints

Every project has limits on the resources available to complete the required work. Identifying these constraints allows accurate estimates of how much can be delivered within resource limits. Examples of resource constraints include:

  • Budgets and available funding
  • Number of team members assigned
  • Access to required equipment or systems
  • Limits on materials due to shortages or costs
  • Geographic location of team members
  • Travel restrictions that limit in-person collaboration

Technical Constraints

Technical constraints specify any technological requirements, capabilities, or compatibility issues that must be accounted for. These may involve:

  • Required technology, software, or tools
  • Integrating complex or legacy systems
  • Limits to data storage or processing capacity
  • Technical skill sets required
  • Compliance with specific IT security, standards, or protocols
  • Ability to interface with existing systems or data sources

Why are specifications and constraints important?

Having clearly defined specifications and constraints offers many benefits throughout a project’s lifecycle, including:

  • Setting expectations – Provides clarity to stakeholders on what the project will deliver and how it will be executed. This alignment avoids disputes down the road.
  • Planning realistically – Allows development of accurate schedules, resource plans, and budgets.
  • Focusing efforts – Keeps all activities directed toward meeting specified project requirements within limitations.
  • Managing scope – Prevents scope creep and unnecessary changes by anchoring to agreed specs.
  • Guiding design – Specifies requirements that solutions and products must meet.
  • Enabling quality control – Provides objective criteria for testing and validating project deliverables.
  • Managing risks – Identifies constraints that allow assessment of project risks.

In summary, specifications and constraints enable a project team to efficiently allocate resources, maximize productivity, meet expectations, and deliver within the desired scope. This provides the foundation for project success.

How are specifications and constraints developed?

Developing effective specifications and identifying constraints should involve collaboration across project stakeholders. Key steps include:

  1. Gather requirements – Interview stakeholders to understand needs and expectations. Identify must-have features, outcomes, and success metrics.
  2. Research limitations – Investigate potential schedule, resource, technology, and other constraints that may apply.
  3. Draft specifications – Create preliminary technical specifications, performance requirements, and acceptance criteria.
  4. Set realistic constraints – Analyze constraints and set those that are absolutely fixed vs. those with some flexibility.
  5. Review with stakeholders – Circulate draft specifications and constraints for feedback from project sponsors, team, and end users.
  6. Refine details – Update based on stakeholder input. Fill any gaps and adjust to resolve conflicts or issues.
  7. Finalize documentation – Formalize specifications, constraints, and supporting materials for approval.

This process requires clear, ongoing communication with stakeholders. Specifications and constraints may also evolve over a project life cycle as needs change. The team must manage any changes through a formal change control process to prevent impacting scope, resources, or schedule.

How are specifications and constraints used during project execution and control?

Specifications and constraints serve as a guide and boundaries throughout project execution and control. Their key uses include:

  • Measuring progress – Specs broken into plans, tasks, and milestones facilitate tracking work performed vs. schedule and budget.
  • Managing work – Teams use specs to ensure work stays aligned with requirements.
  • Reporting status – Reports reference specs to communicate progress to stakeholders.
  • Change control – Proposed changes must be evaluated against specs and constraints.
  • Quality assurance – Specs serve as acceptance criteria to assess quality during reviews.
  • Resource management – Constraints guide optimal resource allocation to meet specs.
  • Issue resolution – Solutions must keep project aligned with specs and constraints.
  • Risk monitoring – The team watches for risks that may impact meeting specs within constraints.

Specifications and constraints enable the project manager and team to make effective data-driven decisions throughout execution. They provide an anchored framework as the project progresses through various phases toward completion.

Tracking Progress Against Specifications

To leverage specifications during project control, they must be broken into measurable, well-defined tasks and milestones. Progress can then be tracked in terms of:

  • Percentage of specifications completed
  • Specifications remaining
  • Hours or resources invested vs. plan
  • Specifications accepted/rejected by quality reviews
  • Number of specification gaps identified

This tracking provides objective data on progress and surfaces any gaps requiring attention for the project to fully meet specifications.

Staying Within Constraints

The team also monitors key metrics related to project constraints which may include:

  • Budget remaining vs. spent
  • Schedule time elapsed vs. plan
  • Resource utilization rates
  • Number of change requests approved/rejected

Performance against constraints is incorporated into regular project status reports. When constraints are at risk of being exceeded, the team takes corrective actions as needed.


Specifications and constraints are foundational to the success of any project. Investing effort upfront to develop detailed specifications, understand limitations, and set realistic constraints pays dividends throughout the project lifecycle. Specifications bring focus to the desired end results while constraints enable planning and decision making to steer work efforts toward meeting specifications within limitations. Tracking performance against specifications and constraints provides the transparency and indicators needed to keep projects on track.