No more excuses! The importance of a work breakdown structure

In my years of teaching project management, I’ve noticed a pattern with students in my fundamentals class when it comes time to create a work breakdown structure (WBS). Without fail, everybody always jumps to implementing the project as opposed to first identifying what is going into it. Even students who are already certified project managers have this mindset, and when asked, they admit they are not using this tool for various reasons. They may be conditioned by their work environment to skip all the “project management stuff” and just get the project implemented. Some state that they do not have the time or are not able to get their team together at the same time to get it done. Others think that a project manager is supposed to create it all on their own.

For those project managers that feel pressured to skip this important step and push their team straight into implementation, I have found that they experience issues with the quality of their project implementations. No surprise, right? To these people, I ask why they have time to make corrections after the fact, but do not have time to at least create a high-level work breakdown structure. They never have a good answer for this question.

For the ones that state they are not able to get their team together at the same time to create the work breakdown structure, I explain that it can actually be done in phases and that it is a living deliverable that can be amended as needed when new information becomes available. This response seems to surprise students as it never occurred to them to meet with team members separately and collect their contribution to the effort piecemeal. Although it is ideal to have everyone in the same room at the same time, like it happens in a classroom setting, it is not the only way to get it done.

And for those others that think they are supposed to create it all by themselves, I first ask where they got that impression. Then I ask how they intend to accomplish this task when they are not the subject matter expert. I usually get a blank stare from them at this point. I also ask if they have access to documentation from previous projects. I prefer to ask students questions rather than spout a string of “you should do XYZ” statements at them to encourage thinking for themselves instead of just about what someone else told them. Once they ponder what information they have available, I suggest they look for similar projects and research the related documentation to help put a straw man work breakdown structure together and then schedule time with the team to help fill in the gaps.

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