Breakdown Structures – A Powerful Project Management Documentation Format


Documentation & maintenance of documentation is one of the hardest and important activities in Project Management. Hundreds of plans, mails, progress tracking, change requests, document updates, contract documents, etc are few examples of documentation events in project life cycle. There are three main formats used to represent information in documents.

1. Text format – This is most used format as we are trained to write paragraphs & pages from our childhood.

2. Tabular format – This is used when a matrix or log type of information representation is required i.e. responsibility matrix, risk log.

3. Tree hierarchical format – This type is used to depict whenever parent-child relationship exists between different elements. This is the prevalent type used in all “Breakdown Structures”. If you analyze you can see, basic structures built-in Mind mapping is very much tree hierarchical in nature. That’s why Mind Mapping technique can be used directly into your project documentation.

Project Management Documentation formats

Project Management Documentation formats

Breakdown structures

Breakdown structures are important document formats throughout Project Management Life Cycle. One can see Work BS, Resource BS, Risk BS, Organizational BS used in most of the Project.

Breakdown structures follow the general principle of life –

“What you think as a big & unachievable can be achieved by breaking it down into smaller pieces & successfully finishing all smaller pieces leads to completion of the big”.

I like to give simple and effective example here. You are about to have a big buffet lunch. If you think of eating all in one stretch, then it is surely unachievable. You are finishing that tasty feast by eating one mouth at a time.

In Project Management, Breakdown structures are hierarchical representation of information based on certain broad element at the higher level and detailing it out in the descending levels (This is what you do exactly in Mind Mapping too!). A breakdown structure has nodes that represent some text attached to it that conveys some specific information. Nodes are connected with branches in a parent-child tree structure that follows parent = sum of all children rule.

Few other general design principles applies to breakdown structures like 1) 100% Rule 2) Mutual exclusive elements 3) Level of detail. Here are few commonly used breakdown structures and their explanations.

Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) – The WBS is a hierarchical decomposition of the total scope of work to be carried out by the project team to accomplish the project objectives and create the required deliverables.

Resource Breakdown Structure (RBS) – The resource breakdown structure is a hierarchical representation of resources by category and type.

Organizational Breakdown Structure (OBS) – A hierarchical representation of the project organization that illustrates the relationship between project activities and the organizational units that will perform those activities.

Risk Breakdown Structure (RBS) – A hierarchical representation of risks according to their risk categories.

Rolling Wave Planning Technique


Have you ever done night trekking?

Few years back, I did night trekking along with my friends. It was a 5-km journey in a small hilly jungle. We started around 10 pm. It was a dark night. I had a torch with me. With the light, we could identify our way just about 10 steps. After moving that small distance, again we were able to get light for next few steps.

Why do I mention this sequence of events at the first place under this topic?

There is an analogy exists between above journey and rolling wave planning.

In trekking,

* there exists a route, but not completely visible at the start;

* the way is visible only for few steps;

* we need to wait for much information about rest of the path;

* after few steps, next few steps become visible

In projects,

* there exists high-level scope & scope granularity is not defined at the work package level;

* scope detailing of deliverables is done for certain short period (say 60 days) to the work package level;

* towards the end of each period, the detailing of scope is done for a corresponding amount of time

This is called as “Rolling Wave Planning”(shortly RWP).

RWP is a technique used in different processes of a project like project management planning, activity definition and WBS creation.

Rolling wave planning is a form of progressive elaboration planning where the work to be accomplished in the near term is planned in detail at a low level of the WBS. Future work is planned for WBS components that are at a relatively high level of the WBS.

So, in RWP, WBS components may exist in different level of detail in the structure. RWP is particularly useful in projects of high uncertainty like “High-tech” projects, R&D. It is an excellent project development approach for inventive work, where the project goal is known, but the exact deliverable is not. So, it is detailed in time-phased manner.

In some cases, decomposition may not be possible for a deliverable as it will be finished in future. This makes the Project Manager and its team to delay detailing other WBS components which depends on that earlier deliverable. This is also referred as “RWP”.

What is Decomposition technique in Project Management?


In 2004, during my PMP exam preparation, tutor told us that decomposition is a technique for WBS creation. Till that time, I have heard about decomposition when I was in school only in subjects like biology and chemistry.

Biology says – Decomposition refers to the reduction of organic materials into simpler forms of matter.

Chemistry says – Decomposition is the dividing a chemical compound into elements.

From above, we can generalize the definition of decomposition – it is dividing a large piece into smaller and simpler pieces.

Now, it is turn of Project Management on decomposition. Decomposition is an important technique used in WBS creation (Scope Management) and definition of activities (Time Management).

Decomposition in Project Management

In scope management, project deliverables are subdivided into smaller and more manageable components until the work and deliverables are defined to the work package level. This is called as decomposition.

Decomposition of project scope generally involves the following activities:

* Gather information on major project deliverables and analyze related tasks

* Start development of work breakdown structure(WBS) at the highest level

* Decompose the upper WBS levels into lower level detailed components

* Identify each work package & WBS components with unique code, and

* Verify if the degree of decomposition of the work is necessary and sufficient

* No. of Levels of WBS need not be same for all deliverables

But excessive decomposition may lead to more work without much value for the time spent. It can also leads to inefficient use of resources, and decreased work efficiency. So, knowing few basics about work package helps us in deciding the level of decomposition. Few of them are:

* Work package is the lowest level of WBS

* Usually, a work package is the quantum of work which is assigned to a single resource as a whole and produces a verifiable outcome

* Project’s cost and schedule estimation is done at work package level

* The accuracy of these estimations depends on the level of detailed work package that is defined

* The level to which work packages need to be detailed vary from project to project

In Time Management, each work package within the WBS is decomposed into the activities required to produce the work package deliverables.

Take this scenario:

You are a software developer. You need to solve a customer bug. What do you? You will:

First, identify the activities you need to execute to reproduce the customer issue.

Then, modify the software code to rectify the issue.

Lastly, deploy the fix at customer end.

Congrats! you have performed decomposition & activity sequencing successfully.

Your list may contain more activities than what I listed above. Here, we subdivided a work package into smaller and manageable components of activities. This is often performed by the project team members responsible for the work package. Activities are vital input in performing a work. Correct level of decomposition in time management can produce accurate estimate of schedule & timely completion of project.

Always remember, next level of decomposition is possible only when we have clear understanding of deliverables at a particular level.