Work Breakdown Structure. The Coolest Guy At The Bar.

Friday night drinks at the local pub and all the regulars are there.

The Business Case is propping up the bar, wondering why no one ever believes anything he tries to say.

The Project Management Plan is holding court at the corner table, slowly getting drunk on know-it-all stories and boring recollections of years gone by.

The Risk Register is acting as the designated driver and counting everyone’s drinks.

The Gantt Chart is just being popular.

Meanwhile, the Work Breakdown Structure sits by the cigarette vending machine feeling lonely and neglected, shunned by its workmates who throw glancing looks and whisper behind its back. “Too much trouble to create”. “No one ever reads it”. “It’s so self-important”.

Such a shame.

The WBS is actually one of the coolest guys in the room. Far from being just another mandatory deliverable that we get create but then ignore, the WBS is a great guy to get to know.

Intelligent.  Well spoken.  A charming mix of sleeves-rolled-up working-cred and hipster cool.  Tells great stories.  Knows everyone.

Most of the team only ever see the WBS’ tough, hard exterior – they see it logically decompose the project work effort into manageable packages, showing how the overall outcome will be bundled, resourced and prioritized.

But here’s where the misunderstood WBS is so often sold short.  Far from being boring and two-dimensional, there’s a softer, more subtle side that deserves to be called out.

The logical decomposition also lets us see how the Project Manager is thinking.

How do the work packages reflect the Sponsor’s priorities and drivers?

How will the project balance the need for structure and governance with the commercial push to deliver the best value outcomes as soon as possible?

Which work packages matter most?

How will deliverables be sequenced?

Where will resources and expertise be focused?

The WBS also has a smooth, comforting voice. It gives confidence, it tells a story and sets expectations.  Stakeholders can look at a logical decomposition and see how their priorities will be met and their products or solutions brought to market.

As Project Managers, we use this smooth, softer side to shape our stakeholder conversations and assert our authority. Putting forward a confident, robust WBS helps us establish and steer the discussion on our terms.  It lets our audience see what we want to achieve, where we want to get to and how we intend to get there.

By contrast, a weak or unstructured WBS means that our audiences can become confused, distracted and may not focus on the points we are trying to make. We risk losing control of the conversation.

Our stakeholders may know what they want to see in the target solution but we cannot expect them to know how to approach it. That’s our job.

This is where a strong, logical WBS is so useful. It helps the Project Manager to lead the audience on a journey from Point A to B.

When we think about the WBS in this way, the important thing is not the tool or the technique that we choose to develop it, but rather the effort that we spend in getting it right.

The “hard”, intellectual effort to break the scope down to the right level of detail, so that it makes sense to our audiences.
The “soft” effort to engage with our stakeholders, using the WBS to help them see and understand our narrative.

All too often, our colleagues and stakeholders turn away from the WBS – they speak with it when needed but find its hard, detailed side just too difficult to warm to. That’s a shame because it has so much more to offer.

Take the time and share a drink with your Work Breakdown Structure.  Get to know each other, hear its stories and listen to how others connect with it. You may enjoy hanging with the coolest guy at the bar.

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