Rethinking the Work Breakdown Structure Part 2.3: Leveraging a broader range of tools

by | Sep 10, 2021 | Breakdown Structures | 0 comments

In the last post, I looked at the “Structure of Breakdown”.

In this post, we look at the third pivot point that I raised in the headline post. We’re looking to answer the question: How do we leverage a broader range of knowledge and tools to help us go about doing the “breakdown” in our day-to-day practice?

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.

Other domains 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.

This post gives a brief taste of what’s to come in this series by looking at tools from different domains that have applicability in project management breakdown structures:

  1. Breakdown is not about estimation; it’s about problem-solving
  2. How Ontology can provide Cleaving Frames
  3. Helping to maximise “Natural breakdown” instead of arbitrary breakdown
  4. We can use patterns and Templates – with Care

Breakdown is not about estimation; it’s about problem-solving

The well-established domain of problem-solving has many insights into problem decomposition.

“Any problem of real consequence is too complicated to solve without breaking it down into logical parts that help us understand the drivers or causes of the situation.” — Conn, Charles. Bulletproof Problem Solving (p. 50). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Conn argued that the most critical step in problem-solving was taking the problem apart in a way that helps to see potential solution opportunities.

He uses the term “cleaving” to describe the process of finding the “joints in nature” and splitting a problem domain into usable parts.

“When you get good at cleaving problems apart, insights come quickly.” – Conn (ibid)

Furthermore, Conn describes several tools to help break down the problem. He calls these “cleaving frameworks” or “cleaving heuristics.

One type of cleaving framework is called a “logic tree”.

A logic tree is a graphical breakdown of a question or problem that dissects it into its different components, using clear and consistent decomposition criteria. Examples of logic trees that might be familiar are the “Five Why’s” process and the well-known “Ishikawa / Fishbone Diagram”.

Conn lists five different types of logic trees:

  • Factor / Lever / Component
  • Inductive Logic Tree
  • Deductive Logic Tree
  • Hypothesis Three
  • Decision Tree

We will look at these in more detail in future posts and describe how they can be used in the project management domain and specifically for Breakdown Structures.

How Ontology can provide Cleaving Frames

Ontology, in a philosophical sense, is the study of knowledge and the relationships between different items. In information science, an ontology is “a set of concepts and categories in a subject area or domain that shows their properties and the relations between them.”

“a way of showing the properties of a subject area and how they are related, by defining a set of concepts and categories that represent the subject.”Wikipedia – Ontology (Information Science)

Ontologies can be thought of to include the following (at a minimum):

Individuals: Instances or things within the hierarchy: the “ground level” objects

Classes: a general term for concepts, types of objects or kinds of things

Attributes: properties, features, characteristics or parameters that objects (and classes) can have

Relations: how classes and individuals can be related to one another

Whilst all of the above are present in Breakdown structures; we probably don’t use the same terminology. I’ll provide that mapping in future posts, but for now, I want to unpack the power of ontological relations:

Objects (things) can be related to other objects and grouped into classes based on their relations. There are many relations and many different terms for them, but the fundamental relations for Breakdown structures are:

Is-a / Type-of: is a “Supertype-subtype” relation in which a subtype has a type-of (is-a) relationship with its supertype.

Has-a: a “Whole-part” relation in which the whole has a “has-a” relationship with its part.

Part-of: is an “Entity-constituent” relation in which a constituent element has a “part-of” relationship with its parent entity.

Member-of: is a “Container-member” relation in which a member has a “member-of” relationship with its parent container.

Instance-of: is a “Class-object” relation in which an object has an “instance-of” relationship with its parent type.

We will go into these in more detail in future posts and show you explicitly how to use them for your breakdown structures.

Helping to maximise “Natural breakdown” instead of arbitrary breakdown

The logical relationships described above (and others) help us answer the question, “Where does the structure come from?”

Not all relations are equal in helping us with a breakdown structure. Finding the “joints in nature” where we can naturally break things down is “natural breakdown”. It’s obvious when we look at “Has-a” and “Part-of” relations that we are

“Natural breakdown” has the effect that categories map the perceived world structure as closely as possible. To achieve this, Rosch 1978 defined two principles of categorisation:

  1. Category systems should provide maximum information with the least cognitive effort.
  2. The perceived world comes as structured information rather than as arbitrary or unpredictable attributes.

The current narrative and examples of breakdown structures (which we’ll start looking at in the next post in this series) include a mix of natural and arbitrary relationships used in the breakdown. In particular, the assertion that the different “types” of breakdown are applicable at any level of the WBS is pure arbitrariness.

Arbitrary arrangements are acceptable if they are universally (or at least very widely) known and accepted.

The value and utility of our breakdown structures are dependent on their ability to be understood and used for valuable purposes – they are not just an artifact produced for its own sake.

In learning to develop high-quality breakdown structures, we must prioritise structures with Natural breakdown over those with purely arbitrary “association”. Widely accepted arbitrary arrangements fall in between those two extremes.

We can use patterns and Templates – with Care.

If arbitrary breakdowns are widely known and understood, they are still helpful. You can see examples of potentially arbitrary breakdowns in pre-existing templates or prior work used as an exemplar.

The advantages are significant, but the downside is also considerable. Many of the examples show in the traditional narrative imply the adoption of extensive methodology or lifecycle patterns. The danger is over-complicating the project structure simply by accepting a template in full

Here are some examples of pre-built hierarchies that can add value to your breakdown development, depending on your goals and circumstances.

Examples of patterns that may be useful include:

  • Communications
    • Minto’s Pyramid
  • Program Management
    • Program Logic Model
  • Information Technology
    • Gilb’s Attribute specifications

We’ll revisit patterns and templates in future posts.

The Bottom Line

We need to pivot towards using a broader and deeper set of tools to enable practitioners to break down and, equally importantly, combine these different structures into a useful WBS.

There are thousands of years’ worth of development of tools and concepts that you can use to break down structures: stand on the shoulders of giants.

Check out the next post, in which I summarise the last 3 posts before moving on to other Breakdown Structure topics


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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.