Rules of Thumb for Creating a Work Breakdown Structure

I think a lot of us have wondered whether our work breakdown structure (WBS) would seem reasonable to our peers. A Redditor on the projectmanagement subreddit recently asked, “How many rows deep is your typical MS Project plan for a complex project lasting 1 year? Am at 1000 rows now. Am I above or below average?”

I don’t think there is a meaningful “average” to cite because a WBS is based on too many specifics. I think a more actionable question is, “Will this breakdown allow us to communicate the work to be done and assess progress and work remaining?” That said, there are a lot of rules of thumb out there for creating a work breakdown structure (WBS). I find these to be generally useful:

Tasks

  • A task should be something that takes from 2 days to 2 weeks to complete.
  • If you have a small number of tasks assigned to one or two resources that individually take less than 2 days, put them in a checklist and make completion of the checklist a task. Checklists are our friends.
  • If you have a single task that takes more than 2 weeks, maybe it should be divided into smaller pieces. Agile teams commonly break an epic into two or more stories.
  • Think in terms of deliverables. If a task doesn’t produce a deliverable or further the evolution of a deliverable, should it really be a task?
  • If person A produces a deliverable, person B inspects the deliverable, and person C approves the deliverable, you have at least three tasks.

Structuring The Work

  • A WBS should include three types of entries: detail tasks, describing the work to be done; summary tasks, which group detail tasks on some meaningful basis; and milestones, which allow us to note progress based on completion of selected detail tasks.
  • A WBS should be in the form of an outline, with two or more levels of indenture. It is common to have a summary task with multiple child summary tasks, and so on. The term ragged pyramid is descriptive of many WBS.
  • There are two primary audiences for a WBS: the people who will be assigned to perform the tasks (and the people they report to) and project stakeholders who want to understand how the project will affect them. Keep both audiences in mind.
  • Design your WBS for dependencies. If you have six detail tasks under a single summary task, to be performed one after another, and there is a single dependency running from the summary task to the next detail task under some other summary task, it will probably be easier to explain to both audiences than some rat’s nest of links going all over the place.
  • If a summary task only has two detail tasks under it, maybe the details should be merged into one of the peers of the summary task, or moved up to the same level as the summary. Similarly, a summary task with so many detail tasks that you have scroll through them might be a candidate for reorganization.
  • When I have multiple teams working in parallel, I often put each team’s tasks under their own summary task. When they reach a milestone that requires a hand-off to another team, that outbound dependency is located in the top summary task. Especially useful when I have one or more vendors participating.

Considerations for Managing the Work

Make your structure as detailed as needed to facilitate an understanding of the work, but not so detailed that it becomes unmaintainable. If your 1000 row WBS includes 800 or so detail tasks and they average a week in duration, then you will average 16 tasks initiated and another 16 closed out each week over the course of a year. If that doesn’t seem manageable to you, or those assumptions aren’t reasonable, consider your alternatives, from delegating administration of task updates to fissioning into two projects.

If anyone would like to add a rule, or dispute one of mine, leave a comment below.

New PM Articles for the Week of July 8 – 14

New project management articles published on the web during the week of July 8 – 14. And this week’s video: Michael and Amy Port demonstrate techniques used by actors that we can use in everyday life, from job interviews to deal-closing pitches to eulogies. Not your typical TED talk—this is a performance, not a lecture. 19 minutes, safe for work.

Business Acumen and Strategy

  • Venkatesh Shankar notes the 25th anniversary of the founding of Amazon with a retrospective on how that little online bookstore has changed the world. 4 minutes to read.
  • Allison Schrager shares insights from Bruce Carnegie-Brown, chairman of legendary insurer Lloyd’s of London, on measuring the immeasurable. 4 minutes to read.
  • Greg Satell analyzes Intel’s business strategy for surviving the theoretical limits that will shortly repeal Moore’s Law: heterogeneous computing. 6 minutes to read.

Managing Projects

  • Mike Clayton gives a thoroughly detailed analysis of the upcoming changes to the PMP exam. 10 minutes to read.
  • Praveen Malik illustrates why the quality of our estimates is closely related to the quality of our assumptions. 6 minutes to read.
  • Elizabeth Harrin collated ten on-line resources that offer free project management templates. 7 minutes to read.
  • Leigh Espy alerts us to the sales and marketing aspects of our project management responsibilities. Call it “pulling stakeholders.” 6 minutes to read.
  • Harry Hall shows us the power of stating risks as “If [event] then [consequences].” 2 minutes to read.
  • Francesco Marcatto sorts though approaches for getting a constant flow of information in order to report on progress and keep our project plan up to date. 6 minutes to read.

Managing Software Development

  • Stefan Wolpers curates his weekly list of Agile content, from fixed agile to assessing a Scrum Mater’s qualifications to product backlog refinement techniques. 7 outbound links, 3 minutes to read.
  • Henny Portman recaps the second edition of Agile NXT, “a new magazine full of information and inspiration for professionals on the emerging Agile journey.” 4 minutes to read.
  • Edzo Botjes look beyond classic Agile to Resilient and beyond, as volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity, and velocity of change continue to increase. 7 minutes to read.
  • Esther Derby shares a few rules of thumb for agile coaches. 3 minutes to read.
  • Renato explains his recommendations for ensuring frontend security in serverless apps. Yes, it’s a 9.3 on the nerd scale, but very actionable. 4 minutes to read.
  • Johanna Rothman describes a minimalist project kickoff for agile teams that have already learned how to work together on prior projects. 3 minutes to read.
  • Chris Kenst reminds us that a manual solution doesn’t have to be automated. Just a minute to read.

Applied Leadership

  • Geoff Crane is offering the Psychology of Project Leadership Masterclass, based on emotional, motivational, and social competencies with pre- and post-testing. 3 minutes to read. You’ll get 50% off for the first module if you sign up by July 31, 2019. Use the coupon code itpm-friend
  • Pavel Naydenov interviews executive coach Marisa Keegan about motivation, leadership, and emotions in the workplace. 9 minutes to read.
  • Sharlyn Lauby reflects a study that found candidates would turn down a job with more pay at a company with a history of unethical behavior. The news about your company is a part of your employment brand. 2 minutes to read.

Research and Insights

  • Hanna Kozlowska describes provisions in a US Senate bill that would force social media companies to disclose what data the collect from consumers and how they benefit from it. How much is your data worth? 7 minutes to read.
  • Catalin Cimpanu reports on a data breach in Japan—a poorly designed password reset function led to the exploitation of 900 7-Eleven customer accounts. 2 minutes to read.
  • Ian Stewart gives us a history lesson on the use of statistics to predict the behavior of large groups of people from his book, Do Dice Play God? The mathematics of uncertainty. 13 minutes to read.

Working and the Workplace

  • Adam Rasmi shows the statistics: it pays to be an expatriate worker, at least in some countries. 3 minutes to read.
  • Elizabeth Wellington gets advice on living and working abroad from Anna Bertoldi, who has five countries in her work history. 5 minutes to read.
  • Adriana Girdler explains how to be assertive and respectful at work, rather than aggressive and rude. Video, 6 minutes, safe for work.

Enjoy!

New PM Articles for the Week of July 1 – 7

New project management articles published on the web during the week of July 1 – 7. And this week’s video: every year, Cy Swan and Scott Wadsworth celebrate Independence Day in the traditional Oregon pioneer way by packing black powder between two anvils and launching one of them into the air near their homes in Medford. Cy is in his 80’s, still working every day as a blacksmith, and if he ever wrote his autobiography, it would have to be published in three volumes. 2 minutes, safe for work.

Business Acumen and Strategy

  • Sarah Todd examines the departure of Apple design chief Jony Ive to show why it can be dangerous to allow burned out star employees to stay in their role. 5 minutes to read.
  • CISOMag shares statistics showing that phishing and ransomware are the most reported types of cyber-attacks, but GDPR-ready firms have suffered fewer data breaches. 2 minutes to read.
  • Matt Hilbert looks at the growing influence of the GDPR in other countries and suggests an approach for ensuring compliance with developing legislation. 5 minutes to read.

Managing Projects

  • Harry Hall explains SWOT analysis: what it is, how to engage stakeholders, and how to conduct one. Or watch his video; 3 minutes to read or watch.
  • Cornelius Fichtner shares a free ebook, Managing Smaller and Medium-Sized Projects, by Dr. Jim Young. Download link in the PDU Tip box. Podcast, 10 minutes, safe for work.
  • Mike Clayton explains what external dependencies are and how they can impact your project. Video, 4 minutes, safe for work.
  • Robin Nicklas demonstrates resource leveling using MS Project and resource smoothing using MS Excel. Different techniques with different objectives. 7 minutes to read.
  • Linky Van Der Merwe continues her series with how to transition into the agile project management role. 4 minutes to read.
  • Henny Portman reviews Flawless Consulting: A guide to getting your expertise used, by Peter Block. 3 minutes to read.

Managing Software Development

  • Stefan Wolpers curates his weekly list of Agile content, from fixing Scrum with working agreements to the rhythm of Design Thinking to mob programming patterns. 7 outbound links, 3 minutes to read.
  • Ron Jeffries looks at applying Agile methods to contracts with a fixed-scope, fixed-delivery, and fixed-price. 11 minutes to read.
  • Erik Rutkens and Jasper De Vries present a comprehensive analysis of current and developing trends in application security testing. 9 minutes to read.
  • Gábor Zöld gives us a comprehensive guide to technical debt, from what and why to preventing and managing, with case studies. 11 minutes to read.
  • Rahul Jain shares 35 statistics you need to know to plan for cross-browser testing. 2 minutes to read.
  • Kristin Jackovny follows last week’s article on testing databases with a look at query methods for relational and non-relational 3 minutes each.
  • Amyra Sheldon identified the nine most popular cross-platform tools for mobile application development. 8 minutes to read.

Applied Leadership

  • Dan Rockwell: “Stupid teams consist of smart people who engage in stupid behaviors.” But smart teams engage in a few specific, smart practices. 2 minutes to read.
  • Art Petty notes that too much feedback can be destructive. Good leaders are alert to causes of stress. 6 minutes to read.
  • Thomas Oppong explains how learned helplessness makes it difficult to change our circumstances. 5 minutes to read.

Research and Insights

  • Robert Roy Britt recaps recent research into how the brain makes short-term and long-term memories. 7 minutes to read.
  • Johnny Wood briefly describes the top ten emerging technologies expected to significantly impact society and the global economy. 4 minutes to read.
  • Hemant Kakkar reports on his research into dominance and prestige, showing why some leaders are more likely to be punished for their mistakes. 6 minutes to read.

Working and the Workplace

  • Kat Boogaard shares actionable advice and information on business travel from two Road Warriors. 9 minutes to read.
  • Suzanne Lucas answers the question: can you switch a full-time worker into a contractor? 3 minutes to read.
  • Stav Ziv coaches us on talking about our strengths and weaknesses in a job interview. 8 minutes to read.

Enjoy!