Creating a leap in PM Capability: PMI Misses the Point with the WBS – it is DECOMPOSITION that matters

I’m just back from delivering a PMP Exam prep course (something William Duncan previously joked with me in our emails is “borderline unethical”). I have lots of observation to write-up here from last week. None is really a new thought on my part but all are valuable reflections on the state of PM that I’ve not necessarily expressed widely.

Sitting the PMP exam is a stressful endeavour that needs lots of hard work to arrive at a state where candidates can match the questions to the best answer. Debating the exam’s idiosyncrasies would be a long post – it certainly is full of apparent stupidities as last week’s folk kept expressing their frustrations over – but maybe that subtle distinction between parallel correct answers creates deeper understanding for use in reality? Successive classes of candidates would not agree!

Anyway the (a) point that arose for me last week as a “I should really get around to commenting on that” was that PMBoK Guide® makes a big deal “rah rah” about the WBS – Work Breakdown Structure  – But its misses the point!

It is the technique of DECOMPOSITION not the artefact of the WBS that is the nugget to be valued.

In fact 99% of the world misunderstands the WBS, and mostly because it starts with a “w” – the WBS decomposes the scope of the project and scope is first and foremost “what the customer walks away with in exchange for their money” – Scope starts and ends noun based. The verb based bit is transitory and ephemeral.

Hopefully I’m not straying off the point – The use of decomposition in the PMBoK Guide occurs twice ( and – both times it is in actual fact a technique for scope determination yet its second use is in the Time Management chapter for Defining Activities – which is of course Scope from the supplier or team perspective) and what most people believe IS the WBS’ purpose.

Perhaps a summary helps

  • Most people think a WBS models work (activity) but it is described by the PMBoK Guide  and the PMI’s practice standard as ending at work packages which are expressions of results not activity – the activities are within the work packages
  • Projects don’t deliver without people doing work focussed on products and they don’t get paid unless the products match what the customer wants – In both cases the key that unlocks success is decomposition
  • Two definitions of scope exist and decomposition unlocks both: Everything we want from the customer side and everything we must do from the supplier side.
  • The stupidities of matching what people are told to an exam’s uncompromising answers means much effort is spent but little practical understanding for future use is generated.

The (an?) irony is that PRINCE2® and PMBoK Guide are identical in intent but separated by a huge vocabulary gulf. The P2 manual calls the model of scope in customer terms a Product Breakdown Structure which is a much better name and exactly what the PMBoK is trying to say in Scope management. The P2 guide then goes off the rails with the Product Flow Diagram where a Precedence Diagram a la PMBoK is so much more intuitive and powerful.

What shareholders (since these are the people who pay for training events) want is pragmatic training that creates capability in their employees but what exams drive is a stilted miss-understanding.

I wrote a long pair of articles published in the news letter of the American Society for The Advancement of Project Management here and here. But a summary of pragmatism is:

  • The customer has a target opportunity or aversion to a threat. Decomposition allows us to breakdown their motivation and expectations into a set of deliverables. All published guidance should focus on decomposition and call the results a PBS
  • The supplier wants to be paid and decomposition allows us to breakdown deliverables to the point where they are atomic and each of those atomic elements has a life-cycle of creation or acquisition, integration, delivery and use which decomposition helps reveal. All published guidance should focus on decomposition and call the result a WBS (which means discarding the PMI practice guide as wrong)

The result of these two observations/ changes to exams result in a leap in real-world capabilities

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