Examples of Poor Project Management - Planning Without Creating a Work Breakdown Structure
I would like to continue our series of articles on Examples of Poor Project Management with an article about something apparently trivial - the creation of Work Breakdown Structures during the planning activities of a project. Even though it seems to be a no-brainer, at least to an experienced project manager, I’m always surprised to see how many of my peers simply ignore this tool. Even most (if not all) project management literature praises the usefulness of this tool, as a critical input to Project Scheduling, this tool is not as used as it should be. This article will try to explore the reasons why this happens and the main negative outcomes of such practice.
What is a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) & Why is it Important?
Let’s start with the definition of what it means to create a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS): "the process of subdividing project deliverables and project work into small, more manageable components".
In other words, the WBS is a tree structure graphical representation, of all the project work as defined by the project scope, which captures all the deliverables of the project.
Why would you want to spend time creating such a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)? Well, there are many reasons, depending on each project and the team working on it. Some of the most general benefits are:
- It forces the team to truly identify & understand the work that needs to be delivered;
- It helps identify early hidden dependencies between project deliverables;
- It helps test whether the project manager’s understanding of the scope and objectives of the project is sufficient;
- It is a strong communication tool with all project stakeholders. In the early stages of a project, all stakeholders have their own definition of the project scope, their own expectations, etc. Creating the WBS and then sharing it with everyone, is the first important step in getting everybody on the same page when it comes to “what the project is actually going to deliver".
Why Don’t Project Managers Use a WBS when Planning?
If creating a Work Breakdown Structure is such a great process to go through, then why do many project managers skip it?
In my personal experience, I encountered a few types of situations when project managers skip this process:
- The project manager has limited knowledge of Project Management methodologies and best practices.
- The project manager is re-applying plans created during previous projects with similar scope and client profiles. A very common example is implementing the same software solution to a different customer: both internal - another department or business unit of the same company - and external client - another company with a similar profile to previous clients.
- Laziness - procrastination and laziness are part of everybody’s life, aren’t they? Creating a good WBS means hard work for all projects with a bit of complexity. Also, creating it means a real understanding of the project. What if the project manager doesn’t feel like doing any hard work?
- Fear - creating a WBS means showing how much the project manager and his/her team understand the project. It also means commitment, especially from the project manager. Keeping deliverables vague, helps with hiding when things go wrong.
Negative Outcomes of Not Using a WBS when Planning
Now let’s see why choosing to skip creating a Work Breakdown Structure for your project is a bad choice. I can think of a few negative outcomes but, by all means, this list isn’t and doesn’t want to be comprehensive:
- The most obvious negative effect is that the project manager and his/her team cannot provide an accurate estimate on time and resources required to deliver the project. Even when simply re-applying plans from similar past projects, there are high chances to miss contextual details about this specific project which will make estimates unrealistic.
- If any of the project team members are new and have not been involved in similar past projects, they won’t be able to understand the full scope of the work they need to deliver nor the correct dependencies.
- The project manager cannot communicate the project to anyone else who needs or wants to understand the project. As a strong negative outcome of this, there is a big chance that the client of the project won’t have a good understanding of the scope of the work required.
If you are to summarize all these outcomes into a single idea, it would be that: choosing to skip creating a WBS means you are about to embark on the road of delivering a project with a much higher degree of risk.
What’s Your Take?
I chose to write this article as a result of meeting many project managers (including ones with plenty of experience) who simply ignore the step of creating a Work Breakdown Structure. Due to this reason and others, their projects always had a higher degree or risk.
I’m hoping that through this article we will manage to raise the awareness on the importance of creating a WBS for each of your projects. But, before I go, please share your experience on the topic: Do project managers in your organization tend to include the creation of a WBS in their planning activities? What about yourself? Do you believe in the value this simple tool brings to planning projects?