To some project managers, a work breakdown structure (WBS) possesses the same merits as a human appendix – important from a biological perspective, but little practical value. For agile-istas, the WBS is another example of the type of heavy approach to project management that they wish to avoid.
Developing a good WBS does take work but a project team can effort-box the process by deciding up front to what level of detail they wish to decompose the project’s scope. For example, on a traditional waterfall-approach project where the customer has a detailed understanding of the desired end result, the WBS can be many levels deep, whereas on an agile project where the end result is conceptual, an elaborative approach will work better.
Critics might still feel that any effort is not worth spending, so here are some of the benefits a WBS can deliver to almost any type of project:
- It ensures that key scope elements are not forgotten
- It provides a structured basis for risk identification and for any type of bottom-up planning
- It can be the framework for objectively communicating project health and progress
- While it can’t reflect the dependencies between distinct scope elements at the same WBS level it can facilitate the definition of in-scope/out-of-scope content for project phases or iterations
- Turned sideways, it provides a logical design for a project schedule or for a project Wiki or other type of collaboration site
- It is a great learning tool to help a new team member or stakeholder understand what the project is “all about”
- Developing the WBS can be a good team building exercise for delivery team members and key stakeholders
While project charters and status reports are usually considered the minimal must-have PM artifacts, a right-sized WBS is a worthy addition to this elite pantheon.