Rethinking the WBS – Part 2: Pivot Points towards better WBS

by | Aug 22, 2021 | Breakdown Structures | 0 comments

This post looks at the points around which we will pivot in our new approach to the WBS to make it more useful and easier to create.

I don’t want to be too negative or picky, but if we’re going to improve things, we need to understand what’s wrong.

In my last post, I listed several problems with the current narrative on WBS.

But moving forward, I can identify three main areas that we need to rework to understand and use WBS to their best value in each project.

These are:

  1. Cleaning up the WBS Narrative
  2. Understand what we are “breaking down”
  3. Better tools for decomposition and aggregation (“Lumping and Splitting”)

I will try to avoid references to specific publications, but that might not always be possible.

Each of these “pivot points” covers a fair bit of ground, so I will break them into three separate posts, but a summary below is below.

Cleaning up the Breakdown Structure narrative.

The first pivot point is to clean up the narrative and guidelines about Breakdown Structures in general and the WBS in particular.

We need to clean up the guidance on designing and building Work Breakdown structures, and refocusing its value on being the organising structure for work. Much of the narrative is still consumed with the change from “task-oriented” to “deliverables-oriented”, rather than its primary purpose of categorising work from different perspectives.

And, however misguided, it seems like this transition from “activity” to “deliverables” was never really completed. As we will see next section the result was the wrong solution to the right problem statement.

Some 20 years later there are many parts of the narrative that refer to task and deliverables (even though they say otherwise) or have handled the transition in a very clumsy way. These confusing and mixed references do little to help practitioners.

Not surprisingly the use and application of breakdown structures is a bit of a “cottage industry” with differing practices and a multiplicity of breakdown structure types – 23 at my last count – that have evolved out of the practitioner community.

To have better WBS’s, we need to pivot towards a unified, precise and repeatable set of guidelines.

Understand what we are “breaking down”

The second pivot point picks up where the first left off. The WBS doesn’t help us decompose work. We can only decompose work by using other structures that are decomposed in their own context.

When originally conceived, the WBS was a task/activity oriented structure. PMI described it thus in 1986. The association between the hierarchy and the values (estimates of work) seemed straightforward. Then, in 1993, a Military Standard defined a WBS as “product oriented” and this was taken up by the PMI in 1996, which described the WBS as a “deliverables-oriented” focus. This product vs task orientation seems to generate a fair bit of angst amongst believers. And all of this at the same time as recognising there are other dimensions in the WBS: organisation, phase and location.

This dichotomy (and all its associated angst) is irrelevant. Work is amorphous and cannot be “broken down”. The same goes for deliverables.

The traditional WBS narrative mentions these other decomposition structures, but there is little guidance on using these or when. The conclusion is that any aspect of the context is available for any tree level at any time.

In any project, multiple elements create structure, for example, systems, processes, knowledge areas, organisation and operating models, professional standards and conventions. Each of these can form the basis for decomposition. Indeed many of these have been used to create a standalone breakdown structure, many of which are common.

We need to leverage these other breakdown structures when we build the WBS. And so, the quality of other breakdown structures is critically important.

Better tools for decomposition and aggregation (“Lumping and Splitting”)

The third pivot point closes the loop to answer the question: How do we go about doing the “breakdown” – the decomposition – of parents into children in our day to day practice? And also for the reverse practice of aggregation.

David Weinberger described this as “Lumping and Splitting”.

The traditional narrative is very light on the actual process of doing the decomposition: a scant few guidelines and the occasional reference to a hierarchical relationship. Apart from that, you’re on your own. This lack of guidance is unfortunate because other areas of science and business have spent decades, if not hundreds of years, working on this very problem, going back to Plato some 2000 years ago.

There are many sources of input on the decomposition process, not the least of which is Information Science and the practice of Knowledge management. Plato described this as finding the “joints in nature’, and Weinberger described the breakdown as a source of knowledge and value.

We need to pivot towards using these tools better to guide practitioners on what to break down and, equally importantly, how to combine these different structures into a useful WBS.

The Bottom Line

The upshot of completing the pivot to a new Work Breakdown Structure is to understand that it is not a primary breakdown structure. We will build the WBS from other breakdown structures that represent the knowledge organisation of each project.

This requirement is also vaguely recognised in the WBS narrative without providing any solutions and describing these as “optional approaches”. They are not optional but alternative views into the same underlying information.

The WBS is a derivative structure that we can build either top-down or bottom-up, but one that contains no intrinsic structure of its own. Once we’ve accepted this situation, you will find it easy to create alternative WBS structures to meet different needs.

The WBS does, however, contain work.

Stay tuned for the detailed posts on these three pivot points for better Work Breakdown Structures, starting with Part 2.1 “Cleaning up the Narrative”.


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Each week Adam writes about interesting and varied topics for Project Managers everywhere and curates useful articles, books and papers from other sources.