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.

WBS

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.

Enjoy a lazy Sunday!

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?

Related content:

The Right and Wrong Uses of a Plan on a Page
Basic Principles in Project Scheduling
Ideas on Successful Project Initiation and Scoping

Comments

Hello,

I think your topic was clear. But I would like to add some points:
1. WBS most of times are not created because PMs tend to go directly to
the schedule, with all its complexity.
2. WBS tools are not as common as schedule tools in the organization. I
know that MS Visio or a sheet of paper is enough, but PMs don't want do
'waste' time with something that doesn't integrate with anything and that
won't be updated frequently (I.e. won't be used for monitoring).
3. PMs did not understand yet the priority of communications in the
project area. WBS is a communication tool, a graphical view of the
project, with only the detail needed for a 'first look' comprehension
4. PM templates (WBS itself, Project plans, schedules, ...) are usually
available and PMs become more copy-and-paste persons instead of really strategists.
5. At least in the software industry, most maturity models ask for a WBS
in the planning process. As a consultant, I saw many companies were the
process engineers had to emphasise the need of a WBS because the PMs wanted to avoid the tool.

It was a good post, by the way.

Best regards, Luis Monteiro (@luisfsmonteiro).

Valid points Luis. However, some of them are simply excuses for not doing this, not true impediments.

For example, if you have a complex project, the more useful is to create a WBS, at it decreases the risk. Not doing a WBS for a small complexity project might not be too much of an issue, but for a complex one, the exercise of creating it and discussing it with all the appropriate stakeholders reveals lots of hidden assumptions, not so obvious deliverables and dependencies, etc.

Regarding WBS tools, again, is more a matter of will. If you use Microsoft Project to plan the schedule, you can create it in the same tool. If you do scheduling in Excel, you can simply draw diagrams there or in PowerPoint. Personally I prefer mind mapping tools like XMind (completely free) or MindManager. They are very easy to use, they support exporting in many formats and everybody gets a visual representation faster and better than some text in a document.

Regarding your point about PMs becoming "copy-and-paste" persons instead of real strategists - that is unfortunately true. The more I do project work, the more I notice this. And then organizations wonder why the same mistakes are repeated over and over. Thus the reason for me posting this article.

There are a number of 3rd party tools out there that can be used to document a WBS and integrate directly with MS Project, so that is no longer a good reason not to do one. While software is great, nothing seems to beat index cards / post-it's on the big board, then transferring it to a software package The bottom line is getting a team to go through the process and take ownership for all the project piece-parts is invaluable to the success of medium-large projects.

I often think that the WBS is so basic a concept that it gets ignored by many project managers. I think like you say that just replicate the structure that they used last time. However I think they waste a huge opportunity to embed ownership of the work packages within the team and ensure that everyone knows where the boundaries lie between the different teams. I agree that the WBS is a fantastic tool to do this. I don't think this is helped by planning software which encourages PM to start building un-structured list of activities.

We should start a campaign to bring back the WBS.....

Hi I'm using Firefox 5 and your blog isn't showing up properly on my laptop. I'm not sure if I pressed anything but the font is huge on your site!

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I am using Firefox 5 too. I think you simply need to press the Ctrl key on your keyboard and with the mouse scroll wheel, make the font smaller.