Project Management Role

Work Breakdown Structure
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4PM.com

Let’s talk about the project management role. What do landing people on the moon and cleaning up your department’s supply room have in common? They are both projects. Project management is about producing deliverables, like new payroll software, a bridge over I-95,  reorganizing the file room, hiring a new marketing director, producing a new personnel manual or taking a 20 minute moonwalk.

Organizations need deliverables like these that cannot be produced by an individual as part of their regular job. In fact, many deliverables require work from a number of people working as a team. Larger projects may require the efforts of people from several different departments within the organization. Coordinating all the people, assigning them tasks and integrating their results is a challenging effort. It requires different tools and techniques than those used by a department manager. Organizations discovered this fact when they encountered difficulty producing the deliverables they needed on time and within budget. Modern project management gained many of its tools from the space program, specifically from the Apollo program to land men on the moon.

Today all kinds of organizations use the tools of project management for efforts that take as little as a few days. A project manager, who may have a regular job in addition to managing projects, leads a team of people in producing those deliverables. wbsProjects are a one-time effort. They are unique, which is why there is a special way of managing them. These tools and techniques are detailed in a project management encyclopedia called the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK)® that is published by the Project Management Institute (PMI)®. It includes hundreds of tools and techniques that project managers and organizations have developed from years of experience. Project managers don’t use all of them on every project. Instead, they learn what each of the tools and techniques does and how to select the right ones for each project.

Let’s say you are managing a very small project. You will use simple techniques to define the scope which is the project’s objective or goal. You must get this information from the project sponsor. They are the manager or executive who wants the project to be done. The scope of a project should be defined as a deliverable, that is a statement of what the project will produce. The scope statement should also include a metric, a measurement that tells everyone how success will be measured.

The next step in the project management process is to gather requirements. That means you identify all the things that have to be done to produce the scope of the project. Then you would write the charter which is a summary of the project’s scope and requirements. You should also identify the risks the project faces, the resources that will be required to deliver the scope, and how changes can be made to the scope and requirements.

After the project charter is approved by the sponsor, you work with the project team, assigning them tasks, estimating the work and duration for those tasks and then developing the project schedule and budget. When the project sponsor approves the schedule and budget, you and team begin to execute the plan. The team members have their task assignments and report their progress to you on a regular basis, preferably each week. From that data, you prepare status reports and deliver them to the project sponsor. You also deal with changes that people request to the project plan and schedule. Your role as the project manager is to analyze each change and make a recommendation to the sponsor about whether or not the change should be implemented.

Finally, when the last of the project deliverables have been produced, you close the project and archive the data. Having archives of past projects provides valuable information that makes managing future projects easier.

You learn all of those skills in our project management basics courses. Take a look at the basics course in your specialty.

Project Management Career Steps

There are five distinct project management career steps.

Getting into the Profession as an untrained PM

The process starts with becoming a  project manager and getting into the profession. This can be as simple as being in the right place at the right time. What I mean is that you’re an effective contributor in your organization and someone in management may tap you to run a project. When you do well, your project management career is launched.

Getting a beginner certification and basic skills
Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com

Other people carefully prepare themselves with training in the tools and techniques of project management. They use their credential to gain entry as an assistant or associate project manager. Once they have the job, good performance drives their career. They will be actively involved in planning projects, gathering requirements, developing schedules and tracking actual performance against the plan. On-the-job training can teach you a lot of that, but it’s also wise to take a course in the fundamentals of project management. You’ll learn techniques and a proven methodology that you can repeat on every project.

Steps in a Project Manager Career

Getting Certified

The next project management career step is moving up to a full-fledged project manager position. A functional or specialty certification is very valuable during your first or second year in project management. That certification gives you proven techniques for doing the things you may have been doing by guess work. These functional or specialty certifications also teach you some of the unique project management techniques required in information technology, construction, healthcare, consulting and general business projects.

project management careerIndustry Specialization

With your industry specialty certification, you are positioned for the next career step which is getting a higher-paying position to manage larger projects. After three years working in your profession, you probably have sufficient project manager hours to qualify for the Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification. To earn that certification from the Project Management Institute (PMI), you need to document your project manager work experience and project management training classes and then pass a difficult 4-hour examination.

You can earn a certification in your project management specialty area: IT, construction, healthcare, business  consulting.  Then earn the PMP certification from the Project Management Institute (PMI) as you move up to senior project manger and program manger.

Program and Portfolio Management

The top run on the ladder is positions and certifications for managing multiple projects and programs which can also include managing all the projects and programs in the organization which puts you into the executive ranks with appropriate compensation.

Project Status Reports

Project status reports are the major determinant of a project manager’s credibility.  PMs who regularly surprise executives with bad news late in the project quickly erode whatever credibility they had.  Here are two errors that can leave your reputation in tatters.

1. Project Status Report Error #1: Over Optimism in Forecasts

Beginning PMs are often afraid of the sponsor, particularly if that executive gets angry whenever he hears bad news.  It is easy to be overly optimistic when estimating how quickly you and the team can fix a problem or recover from a harmful risk.   It is wise to pad the recovery estimate by 25% to protect yourself from bad luck or team mistakes. For example, if you’ve calculated it should take 8 days to fix a problem you say, “We’ll be back on schedule in 10 days.”  The sponsor will still be angry but will calm down when you actually achieve the recovery in 8 days. Making the bad news worse than it is protects you and the team from over optimism in forecasts.

2. Project Status Report Error #2: Hiding Problems

It is very easy to convince yourself that a problem is so minor its not worth reporting. Unfortunately, problems rarely go away. When you sit on a small problem and it grows until everyone knows about it, you look like a liar and a fraud.  People stop believing your status reports.  They may openly question them in public.  Don’t be surprised by open distrust and the question, “Is there anything else that could spring up and bite us?”

Those blows to your credibility are impossible to erase. Here are solutions.

1. Project Status Report Solution #1: “Things I Am Watching” List

Each status report should include a “Things I Am Watching” list.  These are not variances…yet.  But you note them and ask your stakeholders for their help.  Here are some examples.

  1. Attendance of the senior Customer Service reps at the system training  sessions is less than 50%. I need help from the stakeholders in that division to increase the reps’ attendance.
  2. The systems engineers are worried about late hardware deliveries which may cause them to overrun their estimates.  Does any stakeholder do business with vendor XYZ? If so, I need to talk to you.

You are alerting people to potential problems. You are also getting out in front of your team and stakeholders on these problems so they can be resolved. That is the image you want of the “plan ahead” and “take charge” project manager.

2. Project Status Report Solution #2: Estimate to Complete

There are a few project sponsors who simply will not listen to bad news about the project being late and/or over budget.  Many project managers let themselves be intimidated by this behavior.  The easy answer is to say, “Sir my professional standards require that I alert you, the project sponsor, and the stakeholders to any problems we have.  I would not be doing my job if I stopped.” This may get you reassigned but hiding problems will get you fired when they come out.

The most powerful tool to improve your status reports is including Estimates to Complete (ETC).  Each week you ask your team members and vendors (those who are billing by the hour) to report two things:

  • How many hours they spent on each of their tasks during the past week
  • How many hours it will take them to finish their tasks.

There is no need to ask them for a status narrative.  You only need to know these two pieces of information.  The ETC lets you operate in front of your team – you’re  discovering problems early when they are small and more easily solved. If a team member or vendor is forecasting finishing late or over budget you meet with them to craft a solution.

As importantly, the ETC also lets you provide the sponsor with a forecasted completion date and an estimate of the budget at completion.  That enhances your credibility with the sponsor and stakeholders.

Bottom-up Estimating – Video

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com
Dick’s Books on Amazon

Bottom-up estimating is a project management technique in which the people who are going to do the work take part in the estimating process. Typically those people are the employees, vendors and other project team members. They work with you, the project manager, to develop estimates for tasks in the work breakdown structure (WBS). Setting the estimates of the amount of work, duration and cost at the task level lets  you combine them into estimates of higher-level deliverables and the project as a whole.

Bottom-up estimating is the most accurate approach to estimating the cost and duration of project tasks. It also requires the most time. This estimating technique gives the entire project team the opportunity to take part in developing the estimates used to measure their work. As a result, bottom-up estimating tends to develop a higher level of project team commitment than other types of estimates (like parametric and analogous). The drawback of the bottom-up approach, however, is that it takes more time than other estimating techniques. A second issue is that you must wait until you know who will be on your team before you can do the bottom-up estimating.

In this video, Dick Billows, PMP, discusses how to make accurate estimates for small to medium size projects.

Making Accurate Estimates of Time and Cost

Bottom-up Estimating: Working Your Way Up

In bottom-up estimating, you follow a three-step process, working from the lowest level of detail in the work breakdown structure (WBS). You begin bottom-up estimating by developing a detailed work package to go with the WBS. In the work package, you detail the scope and major deliverable that each team member will produce.  You describe its cost and duration as well as the risks that affect the task.

This work package is like a contract between you and the team member for their task. You need this contract to make the bottom-up estimating process work effectively with as little padding of the estimates as possible. Team members pad their estimates because they’re concerned about the scope of their work expanding without any adjustment to the estimates. They foresee finishing late on the expanded scope and being blamed for missing their commitment. A similar result can happen when external events affect their ability to get the task done within the estimated timeframe. Because of these factors, work packages are an effective tool for clearly explaining to the team member that any changes to the work package are going to reopen the estimating process. In that sense, it gives them protection from scope changes on their task(s). That is why the work package documents the deliverables, the risks and the approach to the task. You record the team member’s estimates and you both sign the document.  This removes a lot of the anxiety from team members who have previously been burned by the estimating process.

Bottom-up Estimating: From the Work Package

Once the work package is complete and the team member is comfortable with it, you can go on to develop the cost and duration estimates. In bottom-up estimating, you must be careful not to force an estimate on the project team members. If you force the estimate on the team member, you cannot expect to earn much commitment from them. That commitment is dependent on a free and open negotiation where the team member feels the estimate is fair and reasonable. You may use the team member’s pessimistic, optimistic and best guess estimates developed in the 3-point estimating process. That technique allows the estimates to show the task’s uncertainty.

Alternatively, you can use an analogous estimating technique with the team member. You will look at the actual amount of work that similar tasks required on completed projects. If you have several projects and tasks to draw information from, you can quickly reach a consensus on how the current task compares to the other tasks. Then you can adjust the estimated work number to show that difference. The team member needs to actively participate in this discussion and in determining the work number that you will use.

Last, you aggregate the estimates for each activity in the lowest level of the WBS and roll the numbers up to develop estimates for the major deliverables and the project as a whole.

You can use a number of mathematical techniques with bottom-up estimating. The most popular and most accurate is  3-point estimating where each team member provides their pessimistic, optimistic and best guess estimates for the calculations. Which is the Best Estimation Technique?

To learn more about how to do bottom-up estimating, consider our online project management courses. You work privately with an expert project manager. You control the schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences as you wish.  Take a look at the courses in your specialty.

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Project Trade Off – Scope, Time, Cost, Risk, Quality

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com

Project managers use trade offs to provide decision-makers with data on the impact of a change on scope, time, cost, quality and risks. Then the sponsor understands the full impact whenever they have a variance or a change request. Trade offs maintain the project’s feasibility. Project Manager Skills Main Page

Here is an example of  a project trade off.

The sponsor says to the project manager, “I want to move up the finish date from June 30 to May 30.  Make it happen.” The sponsor starts to leave the meeting.

The project manager says, “Yes, I can shorten the duration of the project by four weeks. Your assistant told me about that and I modeled it.  To cut a month off the duration, I will need to have two additional engineers for the month of April and the budget will increase by $10,000 for extra consultants.”

A trade off has two sides. First, there’s the positive side where the PM shortens the duration of the project. Second, there’s the negative side where the project manager says they need added budget for two additional engineers for the month and additional consultants.

The sponsor says,”No all I want is to cut the duration.  No additional people or money.”

The PM says, “If I told you I could do that it would be lie.  To shorten the date there will be other changes.  It is not possible without consequences.”

The sponsor responds, “A good PM would be able to do whatever I want!”

Then the project manager replies, “But it would be a lie.”

Requirements for Trade offs

Trade offs are part of the toolset good project managers use. You must build the project plan with quantified measurable outcomes for every deliverable. And the schedule must have work estimates and accurate precedence relationships. Then you can model every change with its compensating trade offs. Risk Management

When project sponsors want to make a change, successful project managers never say, “Oh no, we can’t add that to the project.” What they say is, “Certainly I can add that to the project, but I will need three more people full time.” Other negative sides of the trade off could be, “We will have to increase the budget by $10,000” or “We’ll have to reduce the savings in our scope by $6,000.” This is the language of trade offs. The project manager is not saying no.  Instead, they are telling the sponsor or stakeholder what it will “cost” to bring about the change they want. Trade offs maintain the feasibility of the project. Merely shortening the duration does not.

Project Trade off Language

You should do what successful project managers do and use trade offs between the scope, schedule, cost, risk and quality when assessing problems and changes to the project plan. When anyone wants to add or change something in an existing project plan, you should always assess the impact on all of the project’s dimensions. If the change is significant enough to require a change order, you should document the trade offs. That information allows the sponsor or customer to decide if the change is worth making.  You should also use trade offs when proposing corrective action for a variance to the plan. The variance should be documented in a status report.  Status Report Template

Here’s a detailed example of using project trade offs.

Let’s say the schedule has a task that was originally underestimated by the consultant hired to produce the deliverable. Now that consultant says it’s going to take an additional 160 hours of work. The PM agrees with the new estimate and quantifies the impact of that increased time on the project budget.  The 160 hours of remaining work will take 4 weeks at the rate of 40 hours a week with the one consultant. Because the task is on the critical path, this will cause a 4 week delay of the project completion date.

The project manager then develops alternative trade offs for dealing with the situation.  First, the PM looks at the trade off that comes from adding one more contractor to the task. In that scenario, the original consultant would do 80 hours of work and the second consultant would do the other 80.  If each worked 40 hours a week, they could finish the task in two weeks rather than four weeks. The cost of hiring the consultant is $100 an hour.  How much would  the project budget increase? The answer is there is no no increase. The addition of the second consultant allows the work to be spread over two people and the duration reduced. But the hours of work remains the same no matter how many people work on it.

There are many other types of trade offs the project manager could use. They might reduce the scope of the project, which usually reduces the amount of work and the duration. They might also consider trade offs for quality and risk. With this explanation of how trade offs work, let’s talk about how you can use the trade off technique in managing your projects.

Project Trade off – 4 Corners

Think of a project as having 4-Corners:

  • project scope (including quality of deliverables)
  • duration
  • risk
  • cost (human resources and materials).

The project is like a tube of toothpaste. When an executive squeezes on a project’s duration corner by cutting the due date by a month, the toothpaste compensates by oozing out from one of the other corners. When the sponsor squeezes the duration, it will deliver less scope, cost more, or have a higher risk of failure. Changes in one corner always impact at least one other corner.  That fact exists whether people recognize or not. It’s not realistic to assume that making arbitrary changes to one corner of the project, like the duration, can happen without any compensating effects through the rest of the project.

Why don’t sponsors recognize this impact? Because in most projects only one, or at most two, of these corners is measurable.  The completion date is always measurable and is often rock solid. In some situations, the project budget is also measurable. But most internal projects have no other measurable dimensions.  Even with the two measured dimensions of duration and budget, the business value of the project (the scope) and the risk of not delivering that scope on time are usually unmeasurable.  So executives continue to make arbitrary changes to the duration and the budget and think that it will have no impact on the project’s scope, quality or risk.

Just think about what happens when a project manager goes back to his team and says, “We have to finish two weeks earlier.” What will the team members do? They will look for shortcuts. The quality may go down and the level of deliverables produced may suffer as a result. Team members also take shortcuts that increase the risk of the project failing. But the project sponsors don’t  know this and they therefore assume there’s no risk from their arbitrary reductions in duration or budget. They are 100 percent confident in delivering the scope within the duration and/or budget.  Now every project manager knows that 100 percent confidence is ridiculous. Particularly because most organizations have a project failure rate above 50 percent.  Yet few project managers give their sponsors the opportunity to make decisions about the level of confidence they want.

Project Trade off – Using the 4 Corners™ Trade off Approach

This is a better approach. If you have a quantified measure of the project’s scope (the business value) and you follow best practices when building the project schedule and budget, you can present your sponsor with quantified trade-offs between the 4-Corners™ of the project plan.  This data-based decision-making and fine-tuning is a good platform for the sponsors’ approval. It is far better than arbitrary changes to one or more of the 4-Corners™ without any offsetting changes to the others. You will also use these quantified trade offs every time there is a variance to the plan.  Your status reports should include analysis of the trade offs between the “4-Corners.”™ That gives the executives data to evaluate the alternatives for taking advantage of opportunities and recovering from problems.

This project trade-offs approach is inconvenient for executives who want to make a change to just one corner. If they do that, you will have projects that aren’t feasible, are late, over budget and achieve less than planned. Arguing with the project sponsor doesn’t work, particularly when they are your superior or your customer. What does work is using decision-making data. That’s the benefit of using project trade offs.

Project Trade off Foundation for Scope, Budget and Duration

Here are the foundations of trade offs:

  1. You must develop alternative combinations of scope, budget and duration by building a project plan and schedule using best practices. The requirements are that you define every deliverable and every task in the work breakdown structure (WBS) with acceptance criteria. That way there’s no ambiguity about the progress or the completion. You base the project plan and schedule on estimates of the amount of work required. You cannot use just start and finish dates. With those components in place, you can offer the sponsor and decision-makers alternatives and trade offs between scope, budget and duration.
  2. During the initial presentation of the project plan, you should model at least three project trade-offs or alternative ways of doing the project. Starting from the project’s base design, you construct three trade offs to finish at least 20% earlier than the base design. You also construct three alternatives that collectively lower the cost of the project by 20%. Having these options available during the project presentation gives you the ability to answer the question that executives often ask, “How can we do this cheaper and faster?”
  3. When your weekly status report shows variances from the plan, you should use project trade offs to model alternative corrective actions to address the variances.
  4. When you have change requests, you should assess the impact of the change on the project scope, duration, risk and cost. Then you present the trade offs between those constraints.

Project Trade off Summary

It is a project management best practice to assess the impact of a change or variance on the project’s scope, cost, duration and risk.  Then you model project trade offs between those “4-Corners” ™ and give the decision-makers alternative ways to deal with the opportunities and problems.

To learn the specific techniques for framing your projects and developing these “4-Corners”™ trade-offs, look at our project management bookstore or consider taking one of our project management training courses. We offer them in-person at your site or as online courses where you work privately with your instructor according to your schedule. More on Decision Making Data,

To master these techniques and the way to present them to the project sponsor, take a look at our advanced techniques courses in your specialty.

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Work Breakdown Schedule

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.co

The work breakdown schedule (WBS) is the spine of your project plan. The most important function is to communicate clear performance expectations about the project. For executives, the work breakdown schedule communicates exactly what they’re going to get from the project. That is what the business results will be. The WBS entries, from the scope down to the smallest team member’s task, are measurable deliverables.  Each clearly communicates a performance expectation with numbers so it is measurable.  As an example, the scope of a customer service project might be, “Less than 5% of customers have to contact customer service a second time about the same problem.”  That number is a measurable deliverable, it’s an acceptance criterion. Specifically, the project is successful if fewer than 5% of the customers have to call back about the same problem.  When you communicate that expectation to the executives, they know what they’re going to get from the project. As importantly, they know what they’re not going to get. It clearly tells them that the result will not be perfection. They will still have about 5% of the customers calling back about the same problem.  Main Work Breakdown Structure Page

Work Breakdown Schedule: Trade-offs

The work breakdown schedule is a tool for project managers to control expectations. It communicates to executives that they cannot change the project’s scope without compensating adjustments, called trade-offs, to the project’s duration and/or cost. Dealing with those trade-offs is a key to managing the expectations of sponsors and other executives. Consistently successful project managers use those trade-offs during the initial planning phase to communicate expectations about the project’s scope, time, cost and risk. The scope and major deliverables must be defined in measurable terms so the trade-offs can be quantified. If the scope isn’t defined in this manner, the project will have overruns and dissatisfied sponsors and executives.

Here’s a conversation with “Less than 5% of customers call back about the same problem” as a measurable scope:

An executive says, ” Oh you can do better than that; make it 3%.”

The project manager smiles and says, “We modeled that earlier. Remember?We have a 75% chance of hitting your 3% but it will cost $150,000 more and take 18 months longer.  Do you want to authorize that trade-off?”

The executive replies, “Where did those numbers come from?”

The PM says, “From the computer model we built of the project.  Is this what you want?”

The sponsor’s face turns beet red and he sputters “Of course not, I want 3% for the same budget and finish date.”

The PM says, “That’s not possible, sir. We could improve to 4% for much less. Is that of interest? ”

The sponsor demands, “You will deliver 3% for the same budget and finish date, or you will be looking for a job.”

The PM shakes his head sadly and says, “No one could pull off that miracle. So you’d better fire me now.”

The sponsor storms out.

The project manager handled this correctly, refusing to commit to a result he could not deliver but offering two results which he could deliver.

Work Breakdown Schedule: Deliverables

The work breakdown schedule also shows the executives how the project team is going to deliver the result. The project manager and sponsor decompose the overall scope deliverable into 4 to 7 high-level deliverables. They also define each of those with measured acceptance criteria. Those deliverables are the best way to communicate how the project team will deliver the results defined by the scope. It also gives executives unambiguous checkpoints to measure the progress of the project after work begins. The project manager will also decompose the work breakdown schedule down to the level of individual assignmecomm21nts for the project team members.

Those lower level measured deliverables are the foundation for assigning work to the team members and tracking progress. You should define each task in the work breakdown schedule with a metric and link it to the scope through a network of deliverables. As stated above, you create that network by decomposing the scope into 4 – 7 high-level deliverables.  You continue to decompose the high-level deliverables into smaller deliverables, down to the level of deliverables that an individual will be accountable for producing. A work breakdown schedule developed this way gives the project sponsor, stakeholders and the project manager objectively defined checkpoints against which to measure progress. That is a powerful tool for keeping the project on track and for communicating to everyone that you, the project manager, know what’s going on. Using this technique, you can avoid the difficulties with defining and tracking team member assignments when the work breakdown schedule is merely a “to do” list.

Work Breakdown Schedule: Team Member Assignments and Estimates

If you do the work breakdown schedule correctly, every team member can look at it and know what a good job on their assignment is before they start work. The work breakdown schedule will also tell them how you will evaluate their deliverable when they finish producing it. Because your expectations are clear, a good work breakdown schedule is an excellent tool for developing accurate estimates with the project team members. That’s because they have less need to pad their estimates since the assignment is very clear. Team members pad their estimates because they are accustomed to receiving vague project assignments that change frequently. The usual process of making changes to their vague assignments doesn’t allow the team member to accurately estimate the required work and duration. So the team member prudently protects themselves by inflating the estimates they provide the project manager.

When the project manager develops a work breakdown schedule with measured deliverables, the problem of padding estimates largely goes away. That is particularly true if the project manager uses work packages and makes an agreement with the team members that when their assignment changes, the PM will reexamine their time and duration estimates. That sounds very simple but operating that way gives team members lots of confidence in the commitment process so the project manager gets better estimates from the team members.  Additionally,the work breakdown schedule is the tool the project manager uses to identify the skill set of the people they should assign to each of the entries in the WBS. Work Packages main page

WBS Project Management

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com

Reviewing the project’s work breakdown structure or WBS is the best way for an executive to predict the success of a new project. In this work breakdown structure review, it is relatively easy to answer five key project success questions:

  • Will the project team members clearly understand what the PM expects of them?
  • Will the project manager be able to identify problems early when they are small rather than after it is too late to fix them?
  • Will executives and the project sponsor be able to assess progress versus the plan?
  • Will the estimates of work, cost and duration be reasonably accurate?
  • Will the project manager be able to exercise tight control and spot problems early without micromanaging the team?

It is very efficient to assess the entire project planning process by reviewing the work breakdown structure before work starts. At that point, the PM can still make corrections and avoid dozens or hundreds of hours of wasted time. This is such an efficient insurance policy on new projects that we recommend all projects have a peer review of the WBS before they launch.   Main WBS Work Breakdown Structure Page

WBS Project Management: Pre-launch Review

Right before the project launch is a stressful time for project managers and project sponsors. There is tremendous pressure to start work. But a few hours of delay for a WBS review and corrections can save many days of wasted time and head off project failure. Because of the pressure-filled environment, we recommend that this pre-launch WBS review be a mandatory part of the project management protocol. The review takes place at the end of the project planning process.

No matter how big or small the project is, the project manager is always suffering from near-sightedness during the planning process. It’s very hard for the project manager who created the WBS to see its flaws as well as its strengths. Because errors in the work breakdown structure are so costly and so difficult to correct later on, it is advantageous to have another project manager (who was not involved in the planning) evaluate the WBS.

WBS Project Management: Peer Review Steps

  1. You begin the review of the work breakdown structure for another PM’s new project by looking at the structure of the WBS. Look to see if the entries are organized into subheadings for each of the major deliverables of the project. If so, ask a couple of questions of the project manager who developed this WBS. Did the project sponsor and major stakeholders of the project sign off on the project scope and the major deliverables? If the project manager says no, they must go back to the drawing board. Clearly they can’t launch a project that has not been approved by the sponsor and stakeholders.comm23
  2. If the PM answered “yes” to the project sign off, the next items to examine are the entries in the WBS. This includes the high-level deliverables and the scope. Are they deliverables that describe an end result and the acceptance criteria that the sponsor will use to judge the work?  Deliverables should be stated like, “Customer history database is 99% accurate,” or “Average response time on the network is less than three seconds” or “Quality control has signed off on the product prototypes.”

The PM should define each of those deliverables with the acceptance criteria that are either metrics or a yes/no. In other words, they are objectively measurable. If every entry in the work breakdown structure does not meet this measurability criterion, the project should not be launched. The reason this is so critical is that properly defined deliverables tell the team members what’s expected of them.  Measurable deliverables also let the sponsor and executives track progress unambiguously.

3. Next you examine the size or average duration of each of the deliverables the team will produce. What you’re looking for is micromanagement where the project manager has defined a very large number of WBS entries that have a duration of an a few hours or days. If you see that kind of excessive detail, you know several problems will occur. First, the project manager will not be able to keep the project plan current because there is far too much detail. Second, with that level of micro detail it is likely that every one of these entries will change over the course of the project. And the project manager will not be able to keep it up to date. A project plan that’s three weeks out of date is the same as having no plan at all. An average task size that is about a week’s worth of work is reasonable for most projects. Some tasks will not require that much time and others will require several weeks of time. But on the average, you are looking for about a seven-day duration for each of the WBS entries.

4. The next item to check is the adequacy of the deliverable definitions for making duration and work estimates. This is a subjective area but you want deliverables that are defined with enough precision that the team member and project manager can make an accurate estimate of the work involved. If there is inadequate precision, the project manager will develop work packages for the assignments with weak definitions.

5. Finally, you need to examine the WBS to determine whether the project manager will be able to exercise tight control and spot problems early without micromanaging the team. Here you have to look a bit beyond the WBS and determine the requirements for the status report and the frequency of the project manager’s reports. The most important requirement is that the team members provide the PM with an estimate to completion each week. That is the key to project managers being able to identify problems early, when there is time to fix them.

When you are evaluating a work breakdown structure for another project manager, it’s always best to look at it from the perspective of all the different audiences who will use that work breakdown structure: the sponsor, stakeholders, vendors and team members. That analysis will give the PM helpful, well-rounded feedback.

Books by Dick Billows on WBS

Work Breakdown Structure Size

People have questions about the best size for the project work breakdown structure (WBS). The answer depends on the capabilities of the project team and the complexity of the project. That’s because those two issues affect the size of the assignments for the project team members.  The WBS for a very inexperienced project team will lean toward relatively small assignments (2-5 days) and results in a larger work breakdown structure. The other extreme is a project team of experienced professionals who are expert in their tasks. To avoid micromanaging these experts, you would make relatively large assignments (7-21 days) and, thus, have a much smaller work breakdown structure. Main WBS Work Breakdown Structure Page

WBS Work Breakdown Structure

WBS Size Factor #1: Team Member Experience

In most projects, you’ll have a mix of your team members’ experience levels. So you will be designing assignments that range from a day or two for a rookie team member to several weeks for an experienced team member. You’ll also change the size of the assignments based on each team member’s performance. For example, let’s say a person whom you initially assessed as a rookie does very well and consistently produces high-quality deliverables on time. As a result of their performance, you may expand the size of their assignments to give them more freedom and decision-making latitude. You will spend less time evaluating their work because with bigger assignments they are producing deliverables less frequently.  Many people working on project teams value the expansion of their decision-making freedom with larger assignments. That is a great performance reward.

If you’re following project management best practices, you’re going to be getting status reports from each of your team members on a weekly basis. The size of their assignment doesn’t matter here.  When you give someone a large assignment, they’re still reporting on it every week. So you aren’t “in the dark” about the status of their assignment for weeks at a time.

WBS Size Factor #2: Project Deliverables

The WBS size doesn’t affect the production of project deliverables. You may choose to alter an assignment if the project stakeholders are particularly interested in inspecting one or more of an assignment’s deliverables. However, there are some very important things to avoid in terms of outside influences on the size of your work breakdown structure.

Some project sponsors are wrongly convinced that a big work breakdown structure will give them tight control over the project. This is incorrect on many levels. First, an enormous work breakdown structure takes many hours to update every week. It’s harder to get your team members to give you good status data when they have to report on 10 or 12 micro-tasks. It also takes you longer to enter data and update the schedule with actuals. The typical consequence of a monster-sized work breakdown structure is that the project manager can’t keep up and eventually the schedule is not updated every week. That is the same as not having a schedule.

The other consequence of a very large and very detailed work breakdown structure is it makes your project team members feel they are being micromanaged. They think you and the sponsor don’t trust them to make decisions and are constantly looking over their shoulders. If you’ve ever been micromanaged by someone who knows less about your task than you do, you realize how destructive micromanagement is. You wind up with a project team that takes no responsibility for the results they produce. They simply follow the micro-details in the work breakdown structure. You need to explain this to a project sponsor who wants a very detailed work breakdown structure because the negative consequences are serious.

More information on our lean project methodology

PMP® Certification Training

How to Qualify for the PMP® Exam

The PMP certification requires that you:

  • Document 4-5 years of PM experience with references
  • Show you have passed a  project management course
  • Pass a 4-hour multiple choice exam.

The PMP® (Project Management Professional) is awarded by the Project Management Institute (PMI) and is an internationally recognized credential in project management. It is a door-opener when you hunt for a new job anywhere in the world. It’s also a very good credibility builder within your organization. 

The PMP certification exam is a 4 hour, 200 question multiple-choice exam. The test is exceedingly difficult and PMI reports that approximately half the people who take it worldwide fail. Taking a formal PMP exam preparation course where you learn all the best practices in project management is the best way to pass the exam and is useful for your career.

How Do I Pass The PMP Exam?

The challenge in the PMP exam comes in two areas. First, you need to forget how you manage projects in the real world and learn to answer the questions according to PMI’s way of doing things.  Second, you must understand all the best practices in project management and when to use them. You can’t pass the exam just by memorizing that information. You need to know when to apply a certain technique based on the situation you are given. A very large proportion of the questions on the exam are situational questions.  They are lengthy questions that detail the situation of a project.  That situation is defined by one or more of the following:

  • what sort of organization you’re working in
  • what kind of project you’re working on
  • what sort of project team you have
  • what project process or output you have just completed
  • many other variables

After reading the situation, you must choose from four multiple choice answers.  Each of those answers may be correct to some degree.  So you have to decide which is the most correct answer in the particular context of the question. This is enormously challenging because you have a very large body of knowledge you have to learn. Then you have to be able to decide what to do in a very complicated set of situations.

Multi-media Learning

You need to select the correct learning methodology for you to master all of the information you need to pass the PMP exam. You need to learn about the various contexts, including organizational types and the impact each organization type has on the challenges a project manager faces. That context includes the best techniques to use in the project situation, the environment  in which it is taking place, and where the project managers and stakeholders are in the project management process.  You can’t learn the correct interplay between those elements just by memorizing.

The best way to learn all this information and how to apply it in situations is our PMP Exam Prep course. You’ll have study materials that actually give you scenarios of project  managers executing various projects. As you read these scenarios, you see the logic the project manager uses to pick the appropriate technique. You’ll also read about the explanations the project manager gives to project sponsors and stakeholders about the risk management or estimating techniques the PM decided to use. By learning how project managers operate in these different situations, you will learn to interpret a situation and pick the right techniques when you answer a question on the exam.

Our PMP prep course gives you a multimedia learning experience. You aren’t just reading and rereading the same dictionary over. Instead you are learning the material in a multimedia sequence:

  • first you read about a process and its inputs and outputs
  •  then you watch a video lecture about the correct way  to execute that process
  •  you have an opportunity to talk with your instructor (via video conference) about the process and its techniques
  •  then you watch a video of a project manager actually doing the particular process with the sponsor and project team.

That this multimedia learning helps you gain the knowledge much more effectively. It is also a much more pleasant learning experience. You also add to your personal tool set and understanding of which techniques to use and when. That is invaluable for succeeding and advancing your project manager career.

Our PMP exam prep gives you the best passing guarantee available.  Your instructor will  continue to work with you  if you fail the exam after completing your course in its entirety. We also give you  the maximum flexibility in scheduling the course because you’re not tied to a rigid schedule set by the instructor. You set your own schedule and your instructor adapts to it.  You may wish to take advantage of our free instructor assessment which will help you decide if the PMP training and certification are right for you.

PMP® Certification Training Summary

The PMP exam is exceedingly difficult to pass. The experience and education requirements are enforced with random audits of candidates’ applications. The combination of those requirements and passing the 4 hour exam is what makes the PMP credential so valuable as a job-hunting tool. It’s also the reason that many organizations use the PMP credential as a screening tool when they are recruiting for project managers. People without the PMP are simply not considered for those positions.

Work Packages for Clear Assignments & Estimates

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com

A key success factor for project managers is making crystal-clear assignments to their project team members. This ensures the team members understand what’s expected before they start work.

As importantly, clear assignments lead to accurate estimates for their tasks. This ensures the overall project estimates are accurate. It’s important for team members to be committed to those estimates and have some “skin in the game” in terms of hitting their work and duration numbers.  You get all these benefits by using a work package for each assignment.

Work Packages Store Data for Future Projects

Project managers need a vehicle to capture and store historical data on each project. So when you or other project managers have similar tasks on new projects, you can look at the actual assignments in the work packages from completed projects. You can use some of that data for the current project’s tasks. You should be able to retrieve the estimated hours versus the hours actually used and apply that information to the analogous estimates on your project. The use of the project work package addresses several success factors.

The project work package is a simple tool that improves the clarity of project assignments. At the same time, it increases the level of team member commitment to their estimates. In a very real sense, the work package is the contract between you, the project manager, and the project team member. In it, you make clear exactly what you expect of the team member on each task. The work package details the metric you will use to measure the assignment as well as the approach the team member should take to complete it. It also details the input deliverable(s) the team member needs to start their work. Additionally, it specifies the output deliverable(s) which are the things other team members need from this assignment before they can start their work. The work package also allows you and the team member to discuss risks and how to handle them. It is a very important part of the estimating process.

Learn How to Use Project Work Packages

You need to work with your team members to introduce the project work package. Be careful that it’s not viewed as “just another form to fill out.” You want to talk with them about it as a contract or agreement that the two of you will use on the project. It does the following:

  • defines an assignment
  • states their availability to work on the assignment
  • includes their estimate of work and duration.

You should point out that it offers them protection against changes to their assignments that don’t include adjustments to the work and duration estimates. You may honestly explain that the work package is a device to reduce the padding of estimates. That’s because it offers the team member protection against unfair changes to the scope of their work assignment. If the scope of their assignment changes, the two of you can can discuss a change to their work package.

It will take one or two projects for the team members to become accustomed to using work packages but the benefits are substantial. They are helpful on the current and future projects.  The project manager can review completed work packages to use as the basis for estimates on future projects.

Free Project Article & Video Lecture Monthly


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