A key reason projects fail is because project teams do not fully grasp the scope of work required to produce the project final deliverable. While failure can be defined in any number of ways, it is often characterized by lateness or being over budget. However, the root cause for poor project performance, in most cases, is failing to spend enough time on the front end of a project to plan properly. With the creation of a work breakdown structure (WBS), projects can run more smoothly and with better deliverables.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the greatest military leader from the “greatest generation” once said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” Eisenhower clearly understood that military or project plans seldom, if ever, unfold as planned. But, he also clearly understood and appreciated the importance of front-end planning. Organizations that consistently deliver their projects late and over budget would be wise to take a step back and recommit to spending more time on planning. Doing so would benefit project teams by giving them the time they need to properly define the scope of their projects.
The scope of a project is better defined and more fully appreciated when project teams perform or create a WBS, which is the process of subdividing or breaking down the project deliverables and activities into smaller and more manageable components of work (sub-deliverables). With WBS, each subdivision provides increasingly detailed definition. Upon completion, the activities associated with the sub-deliverables define the total project scope. A WBS is considered complete when the identified project activities or tasks are manageable (not too large); when they can be assigned to a single organization, functional department or individual; and when these activities can be accurately estimated in resource and duration.
Why is this important? The obvious and most important benefit of WBS is that it helps project teams fathom the scope of their project work. The secondary benefits are also important. Project teams are well-armed to manage scope creep when project scope is accurately identified and defined. A WBS assists in accurate time and resource estimation, and is used to develop precise project schedules. Accurate project budgets and schedules allow for rich data mining during the execution phase of a project. Access to performance data translates into meaningful project monitoring and control. This enables project teams to define thresholds for early warning signs of poor project performance, and gives them insight into powerful corrective actions. Furthermore, a well-done WBS creates accountability and eliminates the finger-pointing prevalent in a project environment because activities have a single source responsibility.
Today, too many projects are fast-tracked, and too many promises are made. And all too often, stakeholder expectations are poorly managed. Perhaps we need to embrace the discipline of a military man’s life and heed Eisenhower’s advice, which is “let’s plan more and firefight less.” Doing a WBS during the planning phase of a project will help you understand the scope of your project and increase the likelihood of hitting the target.