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Your WBS. The Coolest Guy At The Bar.
The Work Breakdown
Structure is terribly
misunderstood. Spend some
time getting to know it better
and you will have a fabulous
new friend to help shape
your project conversations.
Friday night at the local pub.
The Business Case is
propping up the bar,
wondering why no one ever
believes what he says.
The Project Management
Plan is holding court at the
corner table, slowly getting drunk on old-time wisdom and boring stories.
The Gantt Chart is just…being cool.
Meanwhile, the Work Breakdown Structure sits in the corner feeling lonely and neglected, shunned by
its colleagues who throw glancing looks and whisper behind its back. “Too much trouble to create”.
“Noone ever reads it”. “It’s so pompous and self absorbed”.
Such a shame. The WBS is, seriously, one of the coolest guys in the room. Far from being just another
mandatory deliverable that we get introduced to but then ignore, the WBS is a great guy to get to know.
Why? The WBS is intelligent, has a charming mix of street-cred and intellectual aloofness, an exotic
background, tells great stories and knows everyone.
Let me explain.
The WBS has a complicated, yet charming personality, with both “hard” and “soft” sides.
Work Breakdown Structure – the Hard, Tough Exterior
We all know the WBS’ tough exterior; we’ve seen it provide a logical decomposition of the project work
effort into manageable packages. When it behaves like this, we get to see how the overall outcome will
be bundled, resourced and prioritised.
But here’s where the street-wise, leather-clad WBS is often misunderstood.
Think for a moment about the difference between the logical sequence and the shiny visuals. We can
use a software package to mark up the technical decomposition using a number of visual styles and
techniques, but focusing on that alone means that we may overlook the subtle side of the “hard” WBS.
The decomposition also lets us see the logical narrative behind the project. By thinking about how the
work effort is decomposed, we can understand how the Project Manager is thinking.What work
packages matter most? How will deliverables be sequenced? Where will resources and expertise be
focused? How will the project balance the competing demands of establishing governance with rapid
Work Breakdown Structure – the Soft, Comforting Interior
The WBS has a smooth, comforting voice. It gives confidence, it tells a story and sets expectations.
Stakeholders can look at a logical decomposition and see a path to completion.
If we see this in our WBS, then we can look to control our stakeholder conversations and assert our
authority. A good WBS helps us shape the conversation; it allows us to establish the narrative on our
A WBS that works means that our audience can see what we want to achieve, where we want to get to
and how we intend to get there.
By contrast, a weak WBS means that our audiences may become confused, distracted and not focus
on the points we are trying to make. We risk losing control of the conversation.
Your stakeholders generally know the End Game – what needs to be delivered but you cannot expect
them to know how to approach it. That’s your job. It’s why you were engaged and it’s what is expected
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 pub friends 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 WBS. Get to know each other, hear its stories and listen to
how others connect with it. You may enjoy yourself more than you imagined.
So how do you get along with your Work Breakdown Structure? Are you best buddies or arms-length
acquaintances? Do you spend time together or do you keep different interests?
I am a Project Leadership Consultant, Speaker and Blogger; passionate about
using the rich, vibrant energy of face-to-face communication to drive real, driving
transformational changes. I get excited by working with creative people, sharing
ideas, listening to people share their stories, watching their eyes light up, seeing
what excites and motivates them, then finding out ways to harness that energy.
Drives me crazy! Bring it on.
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