WBS – Work Breakdown Structure

WBS: Deliverables or a “To Do” List?

The work breakdown structure (WBS)  project risk managementprovides the platform on which you control the project and the check points against which you measure progress. When the WBS is a “to do” list, you lose both those tools and must  micromanage to control the project.

The WBS or work breakdown structure is the centerpiece of every project. You use the tasks in the WBS as the foundation for estimating work, cost and duration. The WBS gives team members clear project assignments, allows everyone to track progress on their tasks and it allows you to identify problems. As the project team executes the plan, their actual results are compared to the estimates for each WBS task. That lets you quickly identify variances and design corrective action.

Unfortunately, too many project managers don’t recognize the importance of the WBS. They think they can just make a list of all the tasks in the project and then start work. That approach yields projects that take longer than they should. It also produces a project that is usually late because too many deliverables were not identified in the initial planning. To develop a strong WBS, you begin by defining the scope and major deliverables. Then you break them down in to tasks to create your WBS.

Project managers often ask, “How many tasks should this project have?” or, “How much detail should I have in the WBS?” The mistake PMs often make is to list “to do’s,” often hundreds of them. They start by listing the first thing they can think of to do and stop when they can’t think of anything else to be done.  They may list tasks that will take as little as an hour to complete.  The driving force behind all this minutia is the fear of forgetting something.

It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that a project’s WBS should detail everything everyone should do on the project. PMs mistakenly think that will protect they from people forgetting or skipping an item because they are lazy, stupid or sloppy. It also frees the PM from relying on the thinking or creativity of the team members. They can just put their heads down and follow the “to do” list. The PM has “thought of everything” and done all the thinking for them.WBS

The WBS “To Do” List

This “to do” list approach may work for projects with one or two people, but it falls apart when the project gets any bigger. The flaws come from a misunderstanding of:

  • How to exercise tight control on a project
  • How to spot and solve problems early
  • The pros and cons of micro-management.

What is Tight Control of a Project? 

Is tight control having no problems?  Hardly. That happens only in project fantasy land. Tight control requires that you:

  • can identify problems early and fix them quickly and inexpensively
  • every project team member knows what they are accountable for delivering.

Acceptance criteria tell team members what they are accountable for delivering. This is quite different from what they have to do. As an example, a “to do” list might tell a team member to “clean up the file room.” That task is open to many different interpretations. It doesn’t define your performance expectation for the team member.  It’s a very wishy-washy checkpoint against which to measure their progress.

The deliverable of ““98% of the files are on the shelves in alphabetical order” creates a crystal clear expectation for the team member. It also provides the acceptance criteria and an objectively measurable checkpoint for progress. When you assign that deliverable, you have better control because the team member knows what is “good enough” and doesn’t have to guess.  Then you combine deliverable-based WBS with work estimates to create a superior tool for control and tracking. When you can’t exercise tight control, you must check everyone’s work frequently and make all the decisions. That’s micromanagement.

Pros & Cons of WBS Micromanagement

Micromanagement is right for brand new employees who need to learn their jobs. It’s also necessary for known slackers or nincompoops on the team. But few project teams are composed entirely of people who need all the decisions made for them.  This management style discourages problem solving or ownership of results.  It makes team members dependent on you and they aren’t allowed to be independent decision-makers. Worst of all, it creates team members who have no accountability for their results. All they have to do is follow the “to do” list of activities.

Most of your project team members won’t thrive under micromanagement.  People who want independence and are willing to be accountable for their work are stifled by micromanagement. They are the best performers and you need to encourage their best work.

Micromanagement doesn’t work on projects that need complex judgments and creative thinking.  On these projects, much of the work is cerebral. So it’s impossible for you to specify everything that must be done.  More importantly, it’s stupid to try. Let’s say you have an experienced engineer performing a task like “design the payment input screen (GUI) for the billing system.”  That relatively small task will require:

  • Meeting with users to gather information about requirements
  • Listing all the required information for the GUI
  • Thinking about how to arrange the data elements on the screen for data entry efficiency
  • Writing a layout document for the screen
  • Meeting with users to get approval of the rough design.

You could list all those activities and more in the WBS. But what if the engineer comes up with a great idea?  Do you want the engineer to ignore it and follow the WBS to do” list? Of course not. You want the engineer to figure out the best way to do the design. So instead of the activities in the “to do” list, you might assign deliverables like:

  • User management signs off on the GUI design and acceptance criteria
  • User management signs off that the GUI meets the acceptance criteria.

You let the engineer estimate how long those two deliverables will take.  You’ll get a status report each week so you know how the work is progressing. Best of all, you crafted an assignment that motivates the engineer to do his best work.

Maintaining the “To Do” List WBS

Remember how small the second WBS was for the engineer compared to the first?  That is typical. The “to do” list approach to yields large and detailed work breakdowns that require lots of maintenance. Every time one of the micro-tasks changes, you need to update the WBS. That can require entering dozens of changes each week. If each team member is reporting on 5 – 15 tasks per week, you’ll have a lot of data entry (even if you have clerical support to input all the status data).

The inevitable result is that tracking falls behind and so does updating the schedule.  There are simply not enough hours to complete these tasks.  Within a few weeks you’ll stop updating the schedule because it takes too much time. This may sound like a stupid and improbable reaction but we see it frequently, even on large and important projects. The justification for stopping is, “No one is looking at all that detail anyway, so why should I spend the time to update it?”

A Deliverables WBS Works Best

Professionals who manage projects for a living and use the best practices in project management, agree the WBS should be composed of deliverables (end results), not “to do’s.” Assigning accountability for deliverables to team members yields a smaller WBS, easier reporting of progress (actuals) and less work to keep the schedule current.  You also get team members’ ownership of the results when they are accountable for producing deliverables.

WBS Summary

Your work breakdown structure (WBS) is your design for making assignments, holding people accountable and monitoring process. Done properly, your schedule will be easy to keep current and your team members will be responsible for their deliverables.

You can learn to do a WBS properly as part of our basic and advanced project management courses. You’ll learn how to break down the scope into deliverables for which you will hold people accountable.


Leave a Reply