The triangle of doom



 The pit of doom

You can't be everything to everybody and you can't do everything for everyone. 

There are some hard choices ambitious owners need to make… 

The core of any strategy rests on the promises made to the customer and how that company delivers on it’s always unique mix of products and services by way of the customer experience. 

…And it is the customer that has the only vote on whether your “promise” was delivered! 

Any decent project manager will tell you that for any project there are three components, only two of which can be optimised, the third will have to be sacrificed.  So, given you can't do everything, where do you focus your energy and your messaging: time, cost or quality? 

One of our clients, the MD of a £1.5 million turnover metal fabrication company has the above triangle in a frame on the wall behind him and he constantly refers to it with clients and staff alike… particularly his sales and design team…”Choose any two” is his oft repeated riposte. 

  • “You can have good and cheap but it’s gonna take time …
  • You can have quick and cheap but you won't get quality…or  
  • You can have good and quick but that’s expensive …”

 As a result, any truly successful company will seek to excel at only one of these attributes, they might tread water on the second but they’ll almost certainly ignore the third.  Using a retail example: 

  • Waitrose and Marks and Spencer focus on quality
  • Lidl and Aldi focus on cost
  • Amazon focus on speed

 In fact, I recently read (in the FT?) that Amazon spend $26 billion a year on R&D and all they are trying to do is get stuff to us quicker.  In context, astonishingly, (you may prefer another adjective) we only spend $6 billion a year trying to cure cancer!

 Your decision on whether you, and your customers, want you to concentrate on quality, time or cost should then relate directly to: 

  • Your ideal customers
  • The messaging and communication you have with them
  • The points of difference you need to operationalise 

Failing to concentrate on one of these or trying to take on all three and become all things to all people will drag you to the centre of the triangle and what we call “the pit of doom”. You will appeal to nothing and no-one.

 Let's now take a look at a small software company, half a dozen people based in London, another half a dozen based in Bangalore.  They create bespoke software solutions for clients… and, in order to protect the guilty parties, we're going to work through a pastiche of some of the work we've done with them. 

Your ideal customer  

The first step in ensuring you don't fall into the pit of doom is to get super clear on who your ideal customer is. 

The idea is for you to create this with a person in mind. You should name this person to make it more real and to help you step into their world. In our software company that guy was “Joe”, the MD of one of their ideal clients.

 To add more depth and insight to this task you should reach out to a handful of your best customers and ask them quality questions to help you understand their thought patterns, fears and goals when trying to find someone like you.  Questions might include: 

  • What are their challenges and frustrations?
  • What are their goals and desires?
  • What are the solutions they are looking for?
  • How do they find somebody like you? 

In asking the above questions our software company concluded they needed tech savvy owners of companies making profits of between £200k and £500k.  Anything less than £200k and it was likely that the company was too small and anything more than £500k and it was likely that was too big and would have an in-house IT team of their own. Their challenges and frustrations were that at that size the target companies didn't have the cash, or the skill set to employ a sufficiently wide talent pool that would allow them to deliver on their IT ambitions. 

Having established the above another key question is, obviously: 

  • Are there sufficient numbers of your ideal customers (within your geographic reach) to meet your long-term goals and objectives? 

That will usually require a bit of research and if the numbers are not there you might need to revisit who your ideal clients might be. 

Having identified your ideal client, the next stage is to determine your promise. 

Your marketing promise  

We all have painful clients where in spite our best endeavour's nothing ever seems to go right, and because we want our businesses to be great, there's a tendency to concentrate on these.  When in fact we’d be better off concentrating our efforts at the other end of the spectrum.  We really ought to think more about our best customers, the ones you really like, the ones that pay on time, the ones where everything just seems to go swimmingly … it's more of these we want, then, once we have a critical mass of these, we can happily jettison those customers where nothing does go well. 

So, you need to specialise, the next stage is to grab another coffee and ponder the most lucrative part of your market.  In order to do this, there is a three question proforma developed by the Marketing Guru Seth Godin to help you do exactly that.  The three questions are: 

  • Our product is for people who believe…
  • We will focus on people who want…
  • I promise that engaging with what we do will help you get…

 Returning to the software company and paraphrasing some of their findings:  

  • Our product is for people who believe…They want to improve the way they use their IT
  • We will focus on people who want…To grow their company more than 10% a year
  • I promise that engaging with what we do will help you get…A return on investment for every IT project delivered

 You can download the proforma below, have a go at answering the questions for your organisation, perhaps individually at first and then as a team…See if you can get clarity on your marketing promise. 

Points of difference  

Having gone through the above exercise there should be some themes, recurring ideas and words that have percolated from it … 

Points of difference start with the words you want to “own” in the space you want to occupy. 

It's about understanding the people you most want to attract, your best core customers and what specifically is important to them. 

From there you can identify the points of difference and then highlight the corresponding activities that you will need to excel at in order to deliver on your promise.  Returning to the software company and their themes; the key was trust and the route to building trust was believed to be communication and competence.  From which it was concluded that their points of difference should be articulated as:    

  • We need to be investing in accessible, friendly communications processes and collateral
  • We need to have the best consultant development programme 

The final stage is messaging architecture … 

Messaging architecture  

The final stage is to organise marketing collateral; website, social media marketing, case studies, brochures and whatever else, around a messaging architecture that details the things that your customers want. 

Your message architecture provides the “scaffolding” for your content; it supports and shapes the content produced. It's the thrust of your argument as to why the client should use you; are you the people focusing on time, quality or cost?  It answers the question “What is your number one thing?” It’s not copy …it’s the framework in which the content and copy sits. 

So, while a message architecture consists of words, it doesn’t tell content creators what words to use. It tells them what messages their words (and images, etc.) should convey and the order of importance of those messages. 

While the messaging architecture should align with the corporate vision, mission, and brand values, it’s not the same as any of those things. Messaging architecture is about the stories you want to tell in order to entice your ideal. 

So, in our final peek at the software company they built their collateral around a number of stories: 

  • Delivering a quantifiable return on investment   
  • Making software systems simple, useful and usable 


For those of you interested in a great read about the detail of exactly this struggle check out “Free Perfect and Now” written by the then CEO of Marshall Industries, Rob Rodin, who documented the company struggles with exactly this concept whilst applying the philosophy of my favourite management thinker W Edwards Deming.  Getting clarity on the things that Rodin and his team thought important took them from a $600 million organisation to a $2 billion organisation in a very short space of time. 

The bottom line is it is exceptionally rare for any business to concentrate on all three components of the cost, quality, time triangle.  Those that try to will end in the pit of doom. 

You can't be #1 everywhere. Choose to be #1 where it counts.  Where is that for you? 



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