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WBS, Trust and Project Performance

by on February 4, 2015

In my graduate class we’ve been discussing hierarchical work breakdown structures (WBS). One of the great strengths of a hierarchical WBS is that in order to get anything close to an accurate scope definition, schedule, budget or risk overview for a charter you need to engage with experienced, senior professionals across the different domains involved in the project. Putting together a good project charter becomes the first step in building relationships with key functional leaders and domain specific stakeholders. The relationships built during this step can be invaluable once you begin execution. These relationships determine if storms are weathered gracefully or require a costly all-fleet rescue.

Unfortunately, too often we silo these relationships and push forward anxiously for the time when SME can talk to SME, and frankly, we can get back to our spreadsheets and metrics. The sentiment can be the same with functional leaders and domain specific stakeholders. They tap people to work on the disaggregated levels of the WBS and wait for reports, all the while managing accountability chains. This happens in both product and functionally oriented WBS. While a product oriented WBS aims to build integrated teams, when top level relationships aren’t nurtured it is extremely difficult to have true team cohesion at lower levels of the WBS.

Discussing charters in my undergraduate class a student mentioned that he would want a more detailed schedule in a project charter before signing off on a project. This took us into a great discussion on relationship building, trust and how much planning to put into a charter. (Remember, detailed planning occurs after project initiation. Project initiation begins once the charter has been signed.) There are many customers that request very detailed schedules, budgets, scope definition, etc. before signing off on a project. Traditionally, this is all unpaid work which a project performing organization is supposed to either eat or bake into the price of the project. In a market place which uses competitive bids, this contributes to a continuous insider advantage for incumbents and increases costs for new entrants, limiting the requestor’s access to innovation.

There is a vector between trust and the amount of planning required before initiation.

Trust and Planning before Initiation

This mirrors the relationship between trust and costs in this phase.

Trust and Costs

Combining a few observations with these charts we arrive at the following conclusions:

  • Innovation benefits from trust. The more planning before initiation the less innovation.
  • Adaptability, resourcefulness and flexibility all benefit from trust. The more planning before initiation the less probable the project performing organization will be adaptable, resourceful, flexible and creative. These are traits which facilitate finding lower cost ways of solving problems and solving problems faster (budget and schedule).
  • The pursuit of certainty and predictability before initiation reduces the ability of the project performig organization to adapt and be creative when needed.
  • The more costs incurred before initiation, the harder it is to build trust.
  • From a market design perspective, the lower the amount of trust in a process the more planning required before initiation. This reduces the probability of new market entrants.

Trust is a critical factor when putting together a charter. A good charter can create a chain of trust that flows from the sponsors and stakeholders who selected the project, to the project manager and team in charge of putting it together, to the functional leaders and domain specific stakeholders contributing people and resources that will execute the project.  When there is a high degree of trust, less planning is needed before kicking off the project. Of course, this trust remains important throughout the project life cycle in overcoming obstacles, getting the right outcome and weathering storms.

Trust is built up through relationship building. The project chartering process is an excellent time to begin to build relationships. Organizations that want to improve the performance of their projects and introduce greater innovation can do so by spending less time requesting highly detailed information before initiation and more time on the process of chartering a project. This is an important consideration in market design as well. Getting the process right, taking the time it takes, can significantly improve project outcomes.

The same dynamic exists in Agile. Agile seeks to accelerate the process by using releasable features or its analog as a boundary object instead of detailed plans used by waterfall. But it runs into the same roadblock as a hierarchical WBS when responsible parties disengage or when there is a lack of trust.

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