Work Breakdown Structure WBS: Deliverables or a “To Do” List?
The work breakdown structure (WBS) provides the foundation on which a project manager works. The project manager uses the Work Breakdown Structure to control the project and the work of team. The WBS also provides the checkpoints against which the project manager and the organization measure progress.
In the project management world, there are two ways to build the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). The first way is to develop the WBS as if it were a “To Do” list. Just like the kind of list you’d make up before going to the grocery store or running errands. Now, there is nothing wrong with “To Do” lists. I make them up for myself all the time. The problem with “To Do” lists comes when you give one to somebody else.Here’s an example. My “To Do” list for the workday includes an entry like “Fix XYZ’s program schedule.” That’s a fine reminder for me because I’ve been thinking about what that client wants to do, the political ramifications of changing the program scope, and the executives who have different positions about that scope. But if I were to give that as an assignment to another one of our consultants, they would have absolutely no idea what it meant. They might have to spend days acquainting themselves with that client company and the new strategic program they are starting. That “To Do” would be a terrible assignment to give someone. I’m not creating a performance expectation. I’m not telling them what a good job is or how I will evaluate their work. Clearly, project managers ought to limit their use of “To Do” lists to personal reminders. For something like a project, which may affect your professional career and the success of your organization, you need a better tool. What Is WBS?
Work Breakdown Structure WBS: Criteria
A professionally done Work Breakdown Structure WBS has to meet two criteria to be included in our work breakdown structure.
- It has to tell the person doing the work what a good job is before they start, creating a clear performance expectation.
- It has to be unambiguously measurable. You don’t want to require a meeting to decide whether the task is done. You and the executives need hard-edged measures of project progress that are not open to interpretation or word games.
Those two criteria sound simple but it is not easy to produce them. In fact, it’s one of the most difficult parts of the art of project management. You need to decide exactly what you want as the assignment’s end result and then convert that end result into a metric.
Work Breakdown Structure WBS: Example
Now let’s see how I would take that “Fix the XYZ program schedule” assignment and make it work. First, I would go through the process of identifying what I want our consultant to give me when he or she completed this assignment. Going back over my conversations with the client, I could identify a number of characteristics that they want to see in the schedule. They want the project to be finished in less than 250 days. They want to avoid using outside contractors. And they want to spend less than $325,000 on the project.
So I could use those metrics to tell our consultant exactly what I want. I would tell them I want a schedule that completes the program in 250 days or less, doesn’t use outside contractors and has a budget of less than $325,000. Those are the success criteria for the assignment and that’s the deliverable I would define for the team member. A really awful assignment would have been to tell the team member I want the schedule revised to be shorter, cheaper and not use any outside consultants. If I do that, what are my odds of getting what I want? They are very poor because the consultant has to guess what I mean by faster, cheaper and no outside consultants.
Now I don’t know whether this deliverable is actually achievable. I need to sit down with the staff member to whom I am giving the assignment and look at the current schedule. I need to give that staff member a chance to think about whether the result is achievable. Then they need to think about how long it will take them to achieve the result. We would discuss the approach and the budget for doing the work. Then I’d have a good entry for my work breakdown structure. Create WBS With Team Members
Work Breakdown Structure WBS: Too Much Work?
You may be saying to yourself, “it is going to take me a lot of time to decide exactly what I want and how I’m going to measure it for every task in the work breakdown structure.” And you are right. It does take more time than a “To Do” list. However, remember how important the work breakdown structure is to your project success. It is the centerpiece of every project. You use the tasks in the WBS as the foundation for estimating work, costs 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, you compare their actual results 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. These project are late because the PM did not identify all deliverables during the initial planning. To develop a strong WBS, you begin planning by defining the scope and the major deliverables. Then you break them down into tasks that are team member assignments to create your WBS. Work Breakdown Structure Size
Work Breakdown Structure WBS: How Big?
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 hundreds of tasks. They start by listing the first thing they can think of to do and stop when they can’t think of anything more. They may list tasks that will take as little as an hour to complete. The driving force behind this minutia is the fear of forgetting something. How Many Tasks in a WBS?
It’s easy for a PM to think that a project’s WBS should detail everything; everyone should do on the project. PMs mistakenly think that will protect them from people forgetting or skipping an item because they are lazy, stupid or sloppy. The PM may also think it frees them from relying on the thinking or creativity of the team members. The team members can just put their heads down and follow the “To Do” list. The PM mistakenly thinks they have thought of everything for them.
Work Breakdown Structure 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.
Work Breakdown Structure WBS: What is Tight Control?
Is tight control having no problems? Hardly. That happens only in project fantasyland. Tight control requires that:
- You can identify problems early and fix them quickly and inexpensively
- Every project team member knows what he or she is 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 ineffective 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.
Work Breakdown Structure WBS: Micromanagement Pros & Cons
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. However, few project teams are composed entirely of people who need all the decisions made for them. Micromanagement discourages problem solving or ownership of results. It makes team members dependent on you when you don’t allow them independent decision-making. 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. Problems Created by Micromanagement
Most of your project team members won’t thrive under micromanagement. Micromanagement stifles people who want independence and are willing to be accountable for their work. 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 they must do. 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 their work is progressing. Best of all, you designed an assignment that motivates the engineer to do his best work. Clear Performance Expectations
Work Breakdown Structure WBS: Maintaining the “To Do” List
Remember how small the second WBS was for the engineer compared with the “To Do” list? That is typical. The “To Do” list approach yields large and detailed work breakdown structures 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 maintenance 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?”
Work Breakdown Structure WBS: Deliverables-based WBS
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. Pre-launch Review of a WBS
Work Breakdown Structure WBS: Summary
Your work breakdown structure -WBS is your design for making assignments, holding people accountable and monitoring process. When you do it 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 the right way 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.