Effective communication is a critical project success factor. The Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is a powerful tool for making sure that there is a common language for discussing and reporting on the work required to complete the project.

If you are reading this, chances are, you know what a WBS is – a project management artifact used to identify and group project tasks into meaningful chunks. Its primary purpose is to ensure that all the work required to complete a project is identified at multiple levels of detail.

Whether you are using a project management tool like Project Insight or not, you can nest tasks under higher-level tasks (you can call these tasks, activities, phases, etc.). Nested tasks become sub-tasks. By doing this you begin the process of identifying the work to be done and setting yourself up for controlling and communicating about your project to stakeholders with a variety of interests in the project.

The Power of Hierarchical Decomposition: Break it down - Roll it up

The power of the WBS is 1) it facilitates planning, particularly the identification of all the work; 2) it provides a common language for discussing and understanding the project; 3) it provides a frame work and index for all the information describing the project - tasks, roles and responsibilities, deliverables, costs, and more.

The hierarchical nature of the WBS reflects the idea that the human mind does best in understanding a complex whole when confronted with between five to seven items ("chunks") of information at a time. Each of the items can be broken down into sub-items to give a useful and complete understanding of the nature of the high-order item.

The WBS is the result of hierarchical decomposition, the process of identifying a comprehensive set of items that fully define their higher-level item. For example, Perform the Project can be decomposed (broken down) into Start the Project, Perform the Project, Manage the Project and Close the Project. Perform the Project can be broken down to Define Requirements, Design, Implement.

Decomposition is an iterative process. It can be completed over time with various participants engaged to define different parts of the overall project. For example the Project Manager and a few key team leads can define the higher levels and delegate major activities to others for further decomposition, often later in the project life when necessary information is available to enable meaningful breakdown.

Why take the time to hierarchically decompose your project? Because you want to avoid long lists of tasks that are difficult or impossible to validate and keep track of. You want to be able to make sure all the tasks are identified and that you can communicate effectively with all stakeholders.

Managing Stakeholder Interests - Levels of Detail

One of the tenets of effective project management communication is addressing the needs and interests of the stakeholders. Stakeholders range from executive sponsors to individual performers assigned to specific tasks or sub-tasks. In between are functional managers interested in the tasks in their domains, customers, regulators and others interested in both the big picture and their own interests.

The WBS divides the project work into multiple levels of detail, where at each level there are a relatively small number of tasks (say, two to seven). This enables communication that considers the other parties’ needs and interests for detailed information.

For example, during project execution an executive sponsor wants a concise statement of project progress that shows where the project is at a point in time and when to expect major milestones to be met. That means that the executive wants to know about Design as a whole and not the various sub-tasks such as coming up with multiple solution options, prototyping and piloting, holding several user-facing meetings, validating, etc. If he or she wants further detail, the next level is available without having to look at fifty or a hundred sub-tasks.

An individual performer wants to know his/her detailed tasks and where they fit in the bigger picture. A team lead or supervisor wants to know what the team is working on and when they are expected to be done with their specific tasks.

Tasks (Verbs); Deliverables (Nouns); Work-streams (Nouns)

Ultimately, the project plan must identify tasks (the work to be performed), deliverables (the result of the work) and responsibilities.

The WBS can be structured at its highest level based on major deliverables (e.g., hardware, software, training), a high-level process (e.g., Initiation, Requirements Definition, Design, Construction, Testing, Delivery, Closure) or work-streams (the major areas of performance responsibility such as Infrastructure, Development, Training, Business Operations, Finance, Procurement and Project Management). At the lowest levels, there are tasks.

Consistency in naming each of the levels and items within them adds to clarity and makes communication easier. It is important to note that management is generally more interested in deliverables than in tasks, therefore it is wise to ensure that every task has one or more clearly stated deliverables and that at higher levels in the WBS the major deliverables are clearly represented and associated with milestones in the project schedule.

Effective Communication

There are too many people in the world of projects who do not seem to appreciate the need for clear, mutually understood communication. For example, what does it mean if a project performer says "I am done with the cell phone research," and the plan has a task Select Mobile Devices which has been broken down into Identify Mobile Devices, Assess and Compare Devices, Decide which Devices are to be used. Is the decision made? Are cell phones the only devices considered or is cell phone a synonym for mobile device?

With a WBS that has been used to complete a project plan and some discipline there is no ambiguity. The task is called by its agreed upon name, the task is identified with a concrete deliverable that has a distinct and meaningful name (e.g., List of Mobile Devices to be Considered) and has been defined as to content and other attributes.

Discipline! That's a loaded word with many meanings. Here we are referring to the self-control, project control and regulation that is needed to avoid chaos caused by miscommunication. The WBS is a foundation for effective communication. Disciplined communication is the skillful behavior that puts it into action.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: George Pitagorsky, PMP, integrates core disciplines and applies mindfulness meditation and people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. George authored Managing Expectations: A Mindful Approach to Achieving Success, The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict in Projects and PM Foundation. He is a senior teacher at the NY Insight Meditation Center.

Online 10/10/2017
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