Rethinking the (Work) Breakdown Structure

by | Aug 7, 2021 | Breakdown Structures, Project Management Concepts | 0 comments

Breakdown Structures have been part of the project management narrative for approximately 50 years. The Work Breakdown Structure, in particular, is seen as a primary mechanism for core project management processes, such as planning, scope control, estimation, vendor management, and is the foundation of Earned Value Management.

Breakdown structures have proliferated far beyond “Work”: I have identified 23 different types at last count.

Issues with the Breakdown Structure Narrative

But there are many fundamental issues with the breakdown structure narrative and its use, for example:

  1. The concept is so familiar that many practitioners think of them as simplistic tools hardly worth much thought – in many enterprises, they have been reduced to “check box” items.
  2. Many perceive that the WBS is suitable only for (and even indicative of) traditional approaches, and the agile community has effectively abandoned their use.
  3. Although there are reams of publications that describe breakdown structures and their use, much of it is superficial, conflicting and limited.
  4. The study of hierarchical information structures extends back over 2000 years (e.g. Ontology, Taxonomy), but very little of this essential practical or theoretical knowledge is in standard WBS curriculums or texts.
  5. When we look at breakdown structures through the lens of information management, some existing guidelines encourage practitioners to violate well-established decomposition rules, which can lead to erroneous or impaired results.
  6. Re-use of knowledge structures is often low: we often see the same concepts broken down multiple times in different project parts, with different results.
  7. Traditional project management has breakdown structures tightly integrated with process and technique – their value, however, extends into many other parts of the project: most fundamentally communications and team alignment.

I will elaborate on the current narrative on breakdown structures in project management in a future yarn. Before we get to that, I want to provide some background to the concepts of hierarchical information structures from outside the project management domain.

Background

In his book “Everything is Miscellaneous”, David Weinberger argues that “The physical world isn’t arranged arbitrarily, like the letters of the alphabet, nor is it based upon the whimsy of any single scholar. Science is all about finding the joints of nature”.

The reference to “joints of nature” is explained thus:

“Plato in the Phaedrus talks about reality having natural ‘joints’ and compares knowing the world to butchering an animal: A skilled thinker, like someone skilled at carving the drumsticks off a turkey, has to know where the joints are.” – David Weinberger – Everything is Miscellaneous.

Weinberger further argues:

“not only must the world have joints, but if knowledge is to exist, humans have to be capable of discerning them. Knowledge is what happens when the joints of our ideas are the same as the joints of nature.”

As well as being an exercise of knowledge management under extreme constraints, projects are at their core about problem-solving. In their book “Bulletproof Problem Solving”, Charles Conn and Robert McLean (both McKinsey consultants) link the “joints of nature” to the essential skill of problem-solving. Firstly, breaking problems down has to be in the right way: they extend the butcher metaphor with the concept of “cleaving” a problem into its parts. But the cleaving approach for a given situation is not arbitrary or formulaic – solving the problem is dependent on cleaving in the right way:

“By finding the right cleaving point to disaggregate the problem, the team was able to focus on the crux of the issue.”

They spend a big chunk of their book on what they call “Cleaving Frames”, which are “existing frameworks or theories to more quickly and elegantly cleave problems into insightful parts.” Both of these two books (and the vast amount of experience and research that supports their propositions) can inform our approach to information management and problem-solving in projects.

Establishing the Semantic Project

I propose that we need Breakdown Structures more now than we ever did when they were the very core of professional project management practice. I believe there is tremendous upside to using hierarchical information structures in projects: how we find the “joints in our knowledge” on the problems we face in projects.

Consider another insight from David Weinberger – the one that got me started on investigating the Breakdown structure topic (I’m paraphrasing a paragraph and mapping it to the project management domain):

What if the WBS was a tree that arranges itself according to your way of thinking, letting you sort first by phase and then by deliverable, and then tomorrow enables you just as quickly sort first by organisation and then by product, phase and location. Then the WBS would be a faceted classification system that dynamically constructs a browsable, branching tree that exactly meets your immediate needs. (after David Weinberger. Everything Is Miscellaneous (p. 78). Henry Holt and Co. Kindle Edition.)

An information structure such as this could inform a broader range of project stakeholders and widen the applicability of breakdown structures to all projects, regardless of lifecycle.

Wouldn’t that be a kick in the head? We would have the beginnings of the Semantic Project.

Stay tuned: there’s more to come on this topic.

 

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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.