Work Breakdown Structure Size

Starting work on your project before deciding about work breakdown structure size is a mistake. It guarantees that you will waste resources, money and have a very small chance for project success. The WBS is central to everything a project manager does. It is also a prime determinant of the project success. We build this listing of tasks by decomposing the project scope and major deliverables. It contains everything that we must produce to deliver the project scope.

Dick Billows, PMP

Dick Billows, PMP
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As a result, the work breakdown structure size is the basis for the project manager’s assignments to the project team. The tasks in the work breakdown are the units for which we develop our estimates of duration and time. It also is the basis for our status reporting to the sponsor about the progress on each of the tasks in the project. For the work breakdown is very central successful project management. Main WBS Work Breakdown Structure Page

People always have questions about how to build the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). They often ask us how big the WBS should be and how many tasks it should have in it. There is no magic number of tasks in a project. The number in your work breakdown structure depends on the capability of your team members. You need to consider a number of factors.

  • What is the correct duration for the assignments I’m going to make to my team
  • How frequently do I want to receive status data and estimates to complete from my project team and vendors
  • how often do I want to update the project schedule with current data
  • how risky are the tasks in this project

As you can see from this list, we design the work breakdown structure to fit both the project manager’s style and the capabilities of the project team. First, let’s consider the team member’s capability. If you’re fortunate enough to have a project team made up of experienced professionals who know how to do their tasks because they’ve done them dozens of times, then your work breakdown structure will have a smaller number of very large tasks. The tasks will be of longer duration because these experienced professionals can handle assignment durations of 7 to 21 days. We should give experienced professionals larger, more challenging assignments and the independence and decision-making latitude that go with it.

However, not every team is composed of project superstars. You’re going to have some people on your team who have some experience with projects and know their jobs but for whom a two-week assignment would be too much. It would be discouraging and perhaps even intimidate. Therefore, for these people we design assignments that are about 5 to 7 day’s worth of work.  We’re still giving them responsibility for a substantial deliverable and the project but we’ve broken up into smaller pieces so we can track their work more frequently. Remember that the frequency of deliverables is a prime determinant of how accurate our status reports are.  That’s because prior to a deliverable being finished and accepted, we’re still working with estimates of how much work remains.

Finally, you may have a team composed of new hires or people who have little experience with your company, little expertise in the technology of their task or no experience working on projects. With these people, you want to break the assignments into small pieces where they have a deliverable to produce every day or two. You would have a large work breakdown structure with relatively small, short duration tasks. That kind of WBS works best with inexperienced people because you will be expecting several deliverables from them every week. This gives you the opportunity for frequent feedback and coaching to improve their performance. With these newer team members, it is a valuable motivational technique to give them larger and larger assignments as they demonstrate their ability to produce deliverables on time and within budget.

Designing your work breakdown structure with these team member considerations, also allocate your time properly. You don’t want or need to spend a great deal of time frequently reviewing the work of one of your experienced project superstars. That kind of micromanagement will be an irritant and interfere with their feelings of independence and professionalism. Therefore, they get the biggest assignments. The people who need the most review of their deliverables will have the shorter assignments and that’s where you’ll spend most of your time.

The last consideration is the risk of the project as a whole and the individual tasks. If we have one or two of the high-level deliverables that have a very high risk of duration or cost overrun, we’ll adapt the work breakdown structure and deliverable definitions accordingly. Specifically if certain of the deliverables have a high risk of changes in technology or where the technology is so uncertain that cost overrun is likely, we break those major deliverables down into smaller pieces. Thus, we will get deliverables every day or two and big problems won’t surprise us. Making this adaptation for the risk does he into the project manager’s time and so we do it only when the risks that resource allocation.


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