When they think through a problem or a situation, some people have a clear natural tendency to start with the detail. All the myriad little components come into their minds. Those who are naturally organised then sift and sort them into a pattern and a plan.
Others approach a problem in a rather different way. They take the issue and steadily break it down into ever-smaller pieces until each component chunk feels like a manageable single concept.
As project managers, we neglect our best tools at our peril and one of the very best is the Work Breakdown Structure, or WBS. Unfortunately, it seems to me that the WBS is chronically under-used and unloved. But never mind that, for now. How can you develop a WBS?
The two natural approaches to problems reflect the two principal ways people approach developing a WBS: bottom-up (listing all the tasks and sorting them into a structure) or top-down (breaking the project into logical chunks, then further subdividing).
Important note: I am talking here about low criticality, ‘informal’ projects.
For formal projects, the ‘correct’ way to develop a WBS is always top down.
Of course most of us use a combination of both and also have a tendency to prefer one in some situations (familiarity, perhaps) and the other approach at other times. That’s fine. When asked, I always counsel that by using both approaches, you will get the most thorough identification of all of your tasks.
Indeed, I was recently asked by someone in an audience: “how can I make absolutely sure that I don’t miss a step?”
Absolutely sure… you can’t. But there are three ways to increase your confidence:
1. Work collaboratively: when you involve lots of people, you get better ideas and make better decisions. But you have to do it right. In a marvellous book, The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few, by James Surowiecki (look out for a future blog on the lessons it offers change and project managers) we learn that one of the key criteria for success is diversity, so involve as wide a spread of people as you can in brainstorming the tasks that need to get done.
2. Peer review: get other people to review your work. Tell them “I know I have missed something important and it’s bothering me because I can’t think what it is”. What this does psychologically is to activate the Pride Organ in their brain. You’ve asked them, and now that organ compels them to find the missing bits. You’ll be surprised what they come up with!
3. Do it twice: If you are compelled to work alone on developing a list of activities, then there is still a way to benefit from both the top-down and bottom-up approaches. Here is a five step process.
Step 1: Develop your WBS – do it in whichever style you would choose naturally – top-down or bottom-up.
Step 2: Put it in a draw safely for two days
Step 3: Get on with something else for two days
Step 4: Start again. Develop a new WBS, without consulting your original work. This time, force yourself to do it in the way (bottom-up or top-down) that does not feel natural.
Step 5: Compare your two pieces of work
Some magic will happen here; two pieces of magic, in fact. First, doing the work a second time, but doing it in the non-intuitive way, will free up more creativity in your brain, to help you access new ideas and new ways of thinking. This combines fruitfully with the other piece of magic. Although you are not consciously thinking about the problem for two days, your unconscious mind knows your going to have another go. So it will keep working on the problem, coming up with new ideas. Some will burst into our consciousness as “aha” moments, so note down what you forgot. Others will simmer away until you free them with the second exercise.
The “so what?”
Don’t neglect your WBS, do it with gusto, do it with friends and colleagues, do it twice – in two different ways.
Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 13 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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