What is a Deliverable-Oriented Work Breakdown Structure?

I don’t know about you, but if I have any hope of remembering something, I put it on a handwritten list or in my Outlook inbox.

I don’t know about you, but if I have any hope of remembering something, I put it on a handwritten list or in my Outlook inbox.

My wife and I keep a list on our kitchen counter. On Saturday mornings, I create a schedule based on the optimal way to procure the items on the list. The list:

  • Includes items that our household’s executive sponsor (my wife) expects me to buy.
  • Doesn’t include what it takes to purchase the items.
  • Doesn’t schedule activities for buying the items until I’m ready to start my trip.
  • Is changed if my wife calls while I’m on the road to add an item. If it’s not on the list, I don’t buy it.
  • Can have sub-items. If my wife wrote “salad,” I buy lettuce, tomato, cucumber and parmesan cheese.

How does this example apply to a proper work breakdown structure? Let’s translate it to the six Ws:

  • The Why is the project’s mission, the reason the executive sponsor is funding the project. The project manager needs to understand and articulate the Why, and all team members must buy into it. If some stakeholders understand the mission differently, the project manager needs to escalate to the sponsor to ensure effective communication of the mission.
  • The What encompasses activities the sponsor is paying for, represented by a list of deliverables (shopping list items) that must be produced to achieve the mission. This list can be hierarchical, but is always composed of nouns. We deliver measurable items, and the list is key to measuring progress—checking off completed deliverables. Adding or removing items requires change management and stakeholder buy-in.
  • The How constitutes tasks that produce a deliverable. In our example, the task is almost always “buy,” but typical deliverables require multiple tasks. Tasks form the basis of the project schedule, with one caveat: If the task schedule is too detailed, we spend more time managing the schedule than performing the work.
  • The Where in our example is the grocery store or pharmacy. For many projects, it’s the office where the project is performed. Complex projects may require that tasks be performed at multiple locations, sometimes offsite or offshore.
  • The Who is the team member responsible for the task. If the project manager knows the deliverables and tasks, he or she determines qualifications and select the resource.
  • The When is what laypeople call the schedule.

Let’s divide this list into sections and determine how they map to project management fundamentals:

  • The Why is defined during project initiation. When engaging an outside contractor, you use the Why to create the contract.
  • The What and How represent scope management expressed as a Work Breakdown Structure. While the What is cast in stone, the How may be more fluid. The only changes to the What may be more detail, dividing a deliverable into components or accommodating a change order.
  • The Where, Who and When are on the project schedule, a living document adjusted for risks, issues and/or imperfect estimates.

Most project management tools provide little assistance in distinguishing between the elements, especially the What and the How, resulting in intermingled deliverables and tasks. Milestones signify the completion of a deliverable, but are listed as part of a task. Color coding highlights deliverables.

But in deliverable-oriented work breakdown structures, all deliverables the stakeholders are interested in are at the top level. Everything else is detail that you can easily hide. The roll-up capabilities of most tools tell you exactly what percentage of a deliverable is done and when completion is expected.

It takes discipline to break old habits and build deliverable-oriented work breakdown structures, but you’ll quickly realize the benefit: improved focus on essentials. And you won’t forget that parmesan cheese.

Please share your best practices for work breakdown structures in the comments section below.

Thomas’s mission is to help the CA Technologies team of talented project and program managers…


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