Work Breakdown Structure

project management skillsThe Foundation for Successful Projects

The size of a work breakdown structure (WBS) is not an indication of how tight the PM’s control will be. But many PMs and executives mistakenly think micro-detail gives them tight control. It actually gives them less control and a schedule that is too detailed to track and keep current.

WBS: It’s Not a “To Do” List

A “To Do” list work breakdown structure does not give a project manager any of the following:

  • a foundation for clear team assignments
  • a tool for close tracking or
  • a technique for tight scope control.

Many PMs believe their work breakdown structure WBS should be a “To Do” list for the project so they can tell people everything they need to do. As a result, their projects fail most of the time. Yes, those PMs are to blame for the 70% project failure rates in organizations. Let’s see why.

These PMs create a monstrous list by writing down what needs to be done in order, from first to last. That approach requires very little thinking and not much effort. In a short period of time, the PM has a long “To Do”‘ list.” Here’s what happens when a PM takes that approach:

  1. The project takes about 50% longer than it should
  2. The “To Do” list expands weekly during the project’s entire life
  3. The project manager makes vague, unclear assignments to the team
  4. The team spends hours in status meetings discussing what to do next
  5. The project finishes late and requires weeks of rework after it is finished.

To avoid this nasty situation, you need to decompose the project’s scope into the work breakdown structure (WBS). Decomposition takes longer than jotting down a “To Do” list and it requires a lot more thinking. However, taking extra time and doing critical thinking gives you a professional-grade work breakdown structure. Consistently successful project managers always use decomposition. It saves time during the life of the project and provides better control.

Problems With the “To Do” List Approach

First, the “To Do” approach leads to, and even encourages, micro-management of the people working on the project. Micro-management is appropriate when you have slackers and nincompoops working for you, but few project teams are composed entirely of these types. The majority of your project team members will not thrive under micro-management. This style tends to encourage dependency rather than independence. People should be able to decide what needs to be done to complete their assignment(s) and how to do it.

Second, PMs are consistently more effective when they hold people accountable for reaching measured achievements rather than completing a “To Do” list. How often do people complete a list of tasks but achieve nothing? On the other hand, when you base your assignments on measurable achievements, no one loses sight of the desired end result. In addition, they commit to achieving it.

Third, the “To Do” list approach is hard to maintain. People have to report on many tasks and that decreases the odds of receiving accurate and timely status reports. The PM, with or without clerical support, has a great deal of data entry to do to input all this status data. Tracking can fall behind and may even stop because it takes too much time and effort. This may sound unlikely but it happens frequently, even on large and important projects. The PM’s logic is, “No one is looking at all the detail anyway, so why spend all that time to catch up?”

How many tasks should a work breakdown structure have? There is no magic number. The usual mistake is to lay out too many tasks and create a “To Do” list. It’s easy to be caught up in the idea that a work breakdown structure should detail everything that everyone is going to do for the project. This springs from the false notion that a project manager’s job is to walk around with a checklist of 17,432 items and tick each item off as people complete them.

The “To Do” list approach is usually linked to the fallacy that the project plan should be a step-by-step procedure for doing everything in the project. The idea is that it is helpful in case you have to do it again. If you are managing the wrong things, this may be handy because you do increase the odds of having to do this project again. Sponsors encourage this behavior by marveling at monstrous project plans. They believe the PM has thought of everything and project success is ensured.

The result of these fallacies is that PMs produce project plans with hundreds or even thousands of tasks. Many of them have durations of a few hours or a few days. Does this level of detail give you better control and lead to project success? Absolutely not. In our view, a “To Do” list interferes with the achievement of a successful result.

Work Breakdown Structure: It’s a List of Measurable Deliverables or Achievements

Look at the section of a work breakdown structure below. We developed it using our Achievement-driven Project Methodology™. We decomposed the scope it into seven high-level achievements (three are shown in the screen shot). Then we decomposed the high-level achievements into smaller achievements. Next, we divide those achievements down to the level of individual team member assignments. This process takes some thinking and you need to master the right techniques for consistent success on your projects.

As a rule, we suggest that the majority of assignments in a work breakdown structure have durations between 1 and 8 weeks. We recommend weekly status reporting of these three numbers:

  • hours worked
  • percentage complete and
  • estimate of hours of work remaining to complete the assignment.

This combination allows you to maintain good control while placing the responsibility for achievements on the team members.

Work Breakdown Structure: Instructions for Projects of Different Sizes

The work breakdown structure (WBS) for cross-functional corporate projects gives you the opportunity to design an assignment and monitoring process. We recommend breaking work down into “packets” of achievements for which you will hold people and teams accountable. This is part of our achievement-driven approach. The graphic is an example of how this works.

Work Breakdown Structure Steps Tier 1: Small Project
Done within an organizational unit with your manager or your boss as the sponsor
Tier 2: Medium Project
Cross-functional effort affects multiple departments or is done for your customers/clients
Tier 3: Strategic Project
Organization-wide projects with long term effects
Learn More in Our Courses #101 Essentials of PM #103 Advanced Project Management #201 Program & Portfolio Management
Participation in Creating the WBS There is great advantage in terms of project commitment when the team members participate in the development.  The lowest level will be their individual assignments.  So it helps build commitment if they are involved in setting the acceptance criteria that will be their performance expectation.  Even in a small project, our work breakdown is deliverables-based with quantified measures that define success. As project size increases, the process of decomposing higher-level achievements expands.  Generally, we would form separate work teams for each major deliverable and have each team decompose that achievement down to the level of individual assignments. This process not only improves the clarity of assignments but also allows for an early consideration of alternatives on each assignment in the WBS. On organization-wide projects, it is difficult or impossible to assemble all members of the project team to participate in the creation so we increasing rely on templates and the work of the project manager.
Work Breakdown Structure Templates Sections of work breakdown structures from previous projects are always a useful time saver in the development of the work breakdown structure.  These templates are even more valuable when they are accompanied by information about the actual performance on the tasks and the hours of work that the achievement required on a previous project.  There is still great value in having the people who will be doing the work participate in this process rather than simply using the template with modifications made by the project manager. As the scale of a project increases to the strategic tier, the identities of the team may not be known. As a result, it becomes increasingly difficult to involve the project team members in the development.  In these situations, templates should be used to as great an extent as possible.
Work Breakdown Dictionary (supporting data on each task) This is often skipped on small projects because that level of formal documentation is usually not needed. As the size of the WBS increases, the additional documentation that comes in the work breakdown dictionary is useful.  In it, we keep track of all the predecessor, estimating, and change control information about the tasks in our work breakdown structure. The dictionary should be created and continually updated as changes take place. Whenever there are changes to the WBS or other information such as duration, resources assigned, cost estimates and precedence relationships we update the dictionary

You can learn how to create a WBS that makes your projects more successful by working individually with your instructor in our on-line project management courses.

Deep Dive on this Topic with Additional Articles:

How to Construct a Work Breakdown Structure

Is Your WBS Designed for Success?


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