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Four Key Questions to Ask About Organizational Detail

Determining how much detail you need in a work breakdown structure (WBS) isn’t a trivial task. As the project manager, you want to describe your work in sufficient detail to support accurate planning and meaningful tracking. But the benefits of this detail must justify the additional time you spend developing and maintaining your plans and reporting your progress.

Asking the following four questions about each WBS component can help you decide whether you’ve defined it in enough detail:

  • Do you require two or more intermediate deliverables to produce this deliverable?

  • Can you accurately estimate the resources you’ll need to perform the work to produce this deliverable? (Resources include personnel, equipment, raw materials, money, facilities, information, and so on.)

  • Can you accurately estimate how long it will take to produce this deliverable?

  • If you have to assign the work to produce this deliverable to someone else, are you confident that person will understand exactly what to do?

If you answer yes to the first question or no to any one of the other three, break down the deliverable into the components necessary to produce it.

Your answers to these questions depend on how familiar you are with the work, how critical the activity is to the success of your project, what happens if something goes wrong, whom you may assign to perform the activity, how well you know that person, and so on. In other words, the correct level of detail for your WBS depends on your judgment.

If you’re a little uneasy about answering these four questions, try this even simpler test: Subdivide your WBS component into additional deliverables if you think either of the following situations applies:

  • The component will take much longer than two calendar weeks to complete.

  • The component will require much more than 80 person-hours to complete.

Remember that these estimates are just guidelines. For example, if you estimate it’ll take two weeks and two days to prepare a report — you’ve probably provided sufficient detail. But if you figure it’ll take two to three months to finalize requirements for your new product, you need to break the deliverable finalized requirements into more detail because

  • Experience has shown that there can be so many different interpretations of what is supposed to occur during these two to three months that you can’t be sure your time and resource estimates are correct, and you can’t confidently assign the task to someone to perform.

  • You don’t want to wait two or three months to confirm that work is on schedule by verifying that a desired product has been produced on time.

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