Work Breakdown Structures (WBS): The Forgotten Best Practice

by Chris Holbrook, MBA, PMP, SCPM, CSM, Practice Director

Learning how to facilitate a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) session is one of the most important things you can do as a project manager. Time and time again projects are launched, budgeted and schedule assigned without first understanding all of the project “bits and pieces” and as a result, projects are less than successful or perhaps even worse.

This article will discuss the value of the WBS and how to prepare, facilitate and document the information from the session. Included throughout are some best practices, tips and tricks to help you refine your approach.

A little WBS history courtesy of…

The concept of the WBS developed with the Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) in the United States Department of Defense (DoD). PERT was introduced by the U.S. Navy in 1957 to support the development of its Polaris missile program. While the term “work breakdown structure” was not used, this first implementation of PERT did organize the tasks into product oriented categories. By June of 1962, DoD, NASA and the aerospace industry published a guidance document for the PERT Cost system which included an extensive description of the WBS approach. This guide was endorsed by the Secretary of Defense for adoption by all services.

What is a WBS?

A WBS should form a product-oriented family tree organized around the primary products of the project (or planned outcomes) instead of the work needed to produce the products (planned actions). See Figure 1 below for an example. Since the planned outcomes are the desired ends of the project, they form a relatively stable set of categories in which the costs of the planned actions needed to achieve them can be collected. A well-designed WBS makes it easy to assign each project activity to one and only one terminal element of the WBS.

Why a WBS?

If done well, a solid WBS includes all the pieces of a project and will allow for accurate estimation of budget, schedule, work effort, vendor selection and task assignment to name a few. These processes are not deliverables from the WBS session but the WBS should be a required input into each of these processes. Unfortunately, and as the title of this article suggests, this is most often times not the case. Project teams build budgets, schedules, etc. without one and as a result can make some fairly serious mistakes.

WBS Preparation, Facilitation and Documentation

What should you do first? The Preparation.

Prepare, plan and think – Here are a couple of tricks for pre-WBS session preparation.

  1. See if you cannot find some analogous projects to reference. This will get your mind familiar with some of the major pieces of these projects to use as “conversation starters” during the meeting.
  2. Think! Walkthrough a pre-session for your project yourself (or include a friend or a project team member for fun). What do you think are the major pieces of the projects? Making time to think through the project yourself is invaluable. Remember, project leadership is problem-solving. Note: Yes, this step is important but don’t feel the need to have all the answers during the session. Prepare in this step as if you wanted to be a valuable member of the team from a contribution standpoint.
    1. Pick the team – How many people should you have in a WBS session? Picking the people for your WBS session probably will not be 100% your decision as a project manager (if it is, hooray!), but you should have some input as to who comes and who participates. Try to keep the number of people between five and seven, as any more than that can get a bit out of control. The goal is to have the maximum idea power with the least number of people. Also, ask yourself the following question of each of the people in the meeting, “What critical information does this person bring to the table?”
    2. Pick the room /facility & gather supplies –Depending on how you decide to do this there are a couple of things to consider.
    3. Old Fashioned Paper – Find a room so that everyone can face one wall in the room by positioning their chairs. Oversized rooms are great. Also, make sure to bring plenty of post-in notes, pens and your laptop or digital camera to document once the session is complete. Recommended: I like this approach because it allows the facilitator to be more interactive with the team, not face down at the computer.
    4. Paperless – For the paperless you will need a laptop and a projector. This technique is very good and environmentally sound but takes more skill to facilitate because you are spending a lot of time at the computer. Additionally, it’s harder to move things around on the board.

Day of the workshop or meeting – Facilitation

Get to the room early and get setup. Give everyone the ground rules, state the objectives for the session and the desired output. The hardest part of the WBS session is getting started. Once you get the “creative juices” flowing, they tend to keep flowing with a lot less coaxing. A couple points:

  1. You don’t have to have all the answers, your job is to help the team dig the answers out of their heads. Your job is to ask thought provoking questions and listen / document.
  2. Try to create a non-threatening environment, reward participation! Even if it’s not particularly relevant.

WBS Ground Rules:

Remind everyone before the facilitation session of a few rules that will govern the WBS meeting:

  1. This meeting doesn’t involve risks and issues. Note: Parking lot if you need to. Human psychology states that people like to see things so they know they were not forgotten.
  2. We don’t care about the chronology of events. Note: Don’t worry about what comes first, second and third. We’ll worry about that later.)
  3. We don’t care about task durations or task ownerships. Note: Don’t get bogged down with this yet! Frequently you have to remind the team about the ground rules and if necessary, remind them that duration and ownership is VERY important, just not right now.
  4. Make sure to include ALL items required for the project to be successful (even if they are external deliverables). Note: This may become your project exclusion list, outside dependencies list or other.
  5. This is your chance to be creative and be a problem solver! No answer is a wrong answer. Note: Although you might not include everything in the final WBS, let people speak freely and don’t stifle their creativity by stating they are wrong or saying “NO”.
  6. Use an Outside Facilitator. It’s often helpful to use someone who is not intimately familiar with a certain technology, department, company, etc. as it allows more open minded discourse.

Document & Distribute

So you’ve finished your meeting, what to do now? Well, this is actually the easy part. Make sure you document your meeting using Visio or a comparable tool. Visio is perhaps the best but can be a bit cumbersome to new users. Also, try to get this material out within 24 hours of your facilitation meeting. Now you can move on to the next steps in the project.

Other Frequently Viewed Articles

Agile & Project Management Resources: cPrime project management resourses, books and recommendation readings.

Risk Management Made Simple: An Overview of Project Risk, Risk Management Objectives, Benefits and Rules.

Work Breakdown Structures: WBS the Forgotten Best Practice of Preparation, Facilitation, Documentation.

Rational Unified Best Practices (RUP): A Primer for the Project Manager and Methodology.

Agile Development & Scrum Meets the PMP: Agile Development and How it Compares and Contrasts to the PMI’s Methodology.

Roadmap for PM Success: Aligning Projects with Organizational Strategy.

The 5 Most Common Problems in Failed Projects: Identifying the 5 Most Common Problems with Solutions.