How to Break Down Your Project

Scope and Schedule Management

How should you break down your project?

Steven Pressfield said, “A great trick that I learned having worked as a screenwriter for many years, the way screenwriters work, is they break the project down into three-act structure: Act 1, Act 2, Act 3. I think that is a great way to break down any project, whether it’s a new business or anything at all.”

How to Break Down Your Project

Image courtesy of Adobe Stock

Whether we are creating a Pixar movie, a building, a highway, or a service center, wise project managers break down their projects into pieces. As we do, we create a structure for the project that helps stakeholders understand the project.

Some people struggle with the challenges of creating large, complex systems, highways, and companies. How can we do this? The answer: one bite at a time. Breaking projects into pieces makes the impossible possible. In addition, the break down creates the vision.

Without this structure, people will likely be confused and make faulty assumptions. It’s like someone trying to put together a puzzle without the puzzle box top. Furthermore, team members may miss critical elements resulting in rework later in the project.

How do we break down each project?

Divide Your Projects into Deliverables

As a part of the project scope management, we divide and subdivide project deliverables — any unique and verifiable product, result, or capability — into smaller, more manageable components. The lowest level is called a work package.

One of the most powerful tools for this exercise is the work breakdown structure (WBS) which is a hierarchical decomposition of the scope of work. The WBS may take different forms: an outline, an organizational chart, or a mindmap.

Tip: When creating the WBS, use nouns for your deliverables, not verbs. For example, a work package might be labeled: “XYZ Report” rather than “Create XYZ Report.”

We want to be sure the WBS includes all the product and project work, including the project management work. Notice that the initial deliverables-based WBS does not include predecessor or successor relationships — there is no network diagram.

Divide Your Deliverables into Activities

Next, we break down the deliverables into activities. In project time/schedule management, we continue the decomposition process to identify the project activities — distinct, scheduled portions of work. What activities must be completed? How long will the activities take? Who will complete each activity?

Image courtesy of Adobe Stock

Image courtesy of Adobe Stock

Tip: Now, we use verbs for the activities such as:

  • Create XYZ Report
  • Publish XYZ Report
  • Archive XYZ Report

The outputs of defining activities include:

  • Activity list – comprehensive list of project activities
  • Activity attributes such as activity identifier (ID), name, description, successor and predecessor activities, imposed dates, resource requirements, constraints, and assumptions
  • Milestone list – a significant point or event in a project
WBS Tips. Want additional tips for creating a WBS? Click here. You can also watch a 10 minute video that I created on this topic.

Your Turn – Break Down Your Project

On one of your upcoming projects, create a WBS with your project team. Use sticky notes on a wall and use one color for the deliverables and a different color for the activities. Once completed, take a picture with your smartphone and replicate the WBS into an outline or mindmap. Lastly, distribute the WBS to your team for feedback.

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One thought on “How to Break Down Your Project

  1. The military called them Phases. There were 6 of them and some can overlap. Making them more useful to this group would look like:
    Phase 0: What we can do and whose on our side, Options
    Phase 1: Chose an Option and get the players in the room
    Phase 2: Seize the Initiative, Start your engines
    Phase 3: Everyone working to the goal
    Phase 4: Feedback, testing and policy
    Phase 5: In stride conversion to full/normal operations
    Looks familiar.