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Project Management: The WBS is Over-Rated
Posted on Sunday, November 19 @ 21:54:00 EST by webadmin

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I'm sure this title gets all the PMI® big wigs a little edgy!  And for all of those PMBOK toters, you can now pick up your book (as I'm sure it just hit the floor!) and read the following article about real world project management.

What is a WBS?

stands for Work Breakdown Structure.  Examining PMBOK®, we see that the WBS should be created after the scope of the project has been defined.   Creating a WBS involves subdividing the major project deliverables and project work into smaller more manageable components. (PMBOK pg 49)

The planned work contained in the lowest-level WBS components are called Work Packages (PMOK® pg 112)

We can all agree with this, right?

But here's the piece that most people miss, or don't fully realize when talking about developing a WBS; the Work Packages should be decomposed one level farther to determine the Activities. (PMOK® pg 127)  This step is like "the missing link"; connecting the WBS to your Schedule Network Diagram (or MS Project).  This is formally called Activity Definition.

What is Activity Definition?

Activity Definition is the process of identifying and documenting the work that is planned to be performed. (PMOK® pg 127)  And once we know the scope of our project, isn't this the next biggest question; "What do we have to do to complete this project?"

So why is the WBS Over-Rated?

Well, if you are studying for the PMP exam or about to undertake a large project, it is not.  It is very important.

But the WBS is nothing more than a tool.  A tool to help you determine the activities that need to occur to complete the project.

So now lets examine this scenario;  You have been assigned as the project manager for some project.  The scope is well defined and the project sponsor as well as management believe this project could be completed in 3-6 months.  Your team of 6 Subject Matter Experts has been determined.  You have transferred the vision (scope) of this project to your team and are now about to hold your first planning session.  All SME's will participate in this meeting.  Given this scenario, a formal WBS may be over-kill.  A simple brainstorming session with the team could allow you to determine all the project activities.  In short, you will be performing Activity Definition without the need for a formal WBS.

You may even be able to perform Activity Sequencing during the same session!  This is the process of putting all of the activities in sequential order by establishing the logical relationship between the various activities.  And inevitably, this process of Activity Sequencing (especially when completed with the team), will uncover more activities that need to occur.


In closing, I'd just like to state that I'm not advocating eliminating the development of a WBS, I'm merely stating that in many real world projects, a formal WBS may not be needed.  I believe project management tools and processes should be scaled to fit the project.  And if the detailed activities of the project can be determined without the need for additional work, then why do it?

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