An editorial for Project Mangement World Today Web Magazine. Published here December 2000.


Musings Index

Is the WBS war about to break out again?

The Project Management Institute (US) has recently [October 2000] released its Exposure Draft Version of its Practice Standard for Work Breakdown Structures (WBS). This is a challenging effort, not least because of the controversy surrounding the application and use of this project management technique. The purpose of the technique is to decompose a project into manageable pieces and there seems to be little argument that the decomposition is hierarchical.

However, the contention arises over whether that decomposition should be in terms of the activities of the project or of its deliverables. If activities, then the WBS is expressed by sentences commencing with verbs, but if deliverables, then the entries are expresses as nouns. The distinction is not trivial because activities speak to the work involved in the project, while deliverables speak to end results. A simple example: a major activity in a software project might be "Write code", but that doesn't tell us anything about what exactly is to be delivered, or how we will know when that activity is finished. Similarly, in a highway project a major activity might be to: "Haul and compact dirt", but we have no idea how long that should go on for. In contrast, a deliverable description such as "Embankment from A to B" does.

In its Introduction, and based on the words in the WBS name itself, the Institute's Exposure Draft makes a credible argument for breaking down the project represented by work as an activity with a tangible result. This approach tries to have it both ways and, indeed, in the WBS examples provided in the appendices, some entries are nouns and others start with verbs. However, the Draft's Glossary definition comes down heavily on the side of nouns by defining a WBS as "A deliverable-oriented grouping of project elements that organizes and defines the total scope ..." where "Scope" is defined as "The sum of the products and services to be provided ...".

The problem arises because it is easier for people to think in terms of activities than it is in terms of product. "We have this great project, so what do we do first?" is the battle cry. Never mind what it is we are supposed to deliver to make the client happy. Starting with that proposition and then working backwards to discover what it is you have to do to get there is much more difficult! This "activity focus" is greatly accentuated by the scheduling software merchants who provide the tools for organizing a breakdown of activities, i.e. the work, They would like you to believe that all you have to do is buy their program and all your project management problems will be solved.

The practical reality is that the most useful first step in managing a project of any size is to start by breaking down its scope, as defined above, according to a well-established and logical sequence. This sequence looks something like this: First according to geographically discrete components, if this is applicable; Second according to time based phases and stages, where each has a clear deliverable; Third according to intermediate or final major deliverables; Fourth according to discrete structural, process, system or device components. Finally, into deliverable elements that can be associated with distinctive types of people-skills or resources.

With this information in hand, we are in a position to start talking about the work required and activities necessary to create or acquire each of these elements! So, it would seem that the five steps we have just describe should more properly be called a "Scope Breakdown Structure" (SBS), or some equivalent name, and the proper place for an activity-based WBS is then as a natural follow-on.

Wouldn't it be nice if this was clearly articulated in the Practice Standard, thereby setting a new higher level of project management competence? And while the Institute's WBS Standard would be an ideal vehicle to make this happen, we suspect that this is unlikely. The standard is being created by a committee involving a large number of people but only one reference is listed. Committees tend to minister to the lowest common denominator. This makes the Institute a follower and not a leader. Worse yet, some of the brightest minds that should be brought to bear on this subject are rightfully unwilling to submit to the Institute's inhibitive copyright agreement. This means that even their wisdom will be lost to the exercise. But that's another issue, more on which, see next month.

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