Decomposing Deliverables

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With the deliverables and their requirements in hand, you now examine them one at a time, subdividing each requirement into its constituent elements. This process is called decomposition and involves boiling down the tasks, activities, and phases that you'll perform in order to build a given deliverable. When decomposing deliverables, you'll be concentrating on what needs to be done, how long it will take (including both total person-hours and elapsed time), and the materials and cost required.

For example, suppose you had a requirement to build a shed. How would you go about building it? You'd likely start with some sort of foundation, followed by a floor, walls, a roof, a door, and a window, then line the inside with some hooks for hanging things. Each of those elements represents one of the components of building the shed.

What are the tasks that you'd perform in order to build the foundation? You'd cut the boards to length, nail them together in a square, fasten them to the ground, etc.

What are the materials required for the foundation? You need wood, nails, and some method of hooking the foundation to the ground so the shed doesn't blow away.

What are the time estimates required for this activity? You might spend a half hour cutting the boards, a half hour nailing them together, and maybe another half hour fastening them to the ground.

Decomposition sounds very easy, but it is a process that requires great management skills. For one thing, you don't want to reduce things to such a low level that you're telling your shed builders how many nails to put into the foundation boards. Chances are they already have a pretty good idea (remember that we're using team members who already know how to do what you need done). You're not developing an instruction set; you're formulating a task list. Somehow you must find the balance between a breakdown that's not granular enough and one that's ridiculously nit-picky.

You also need to identify the hardware and software components required for a given deliverable. When you perform this kind of decomposition, you shouldn't feel that you have to rely on yourself for all the answers. Identifying technical team members who can assist you with the decomposition of various deliverables will make it much easier to detail the specific hardware and software components required. Team members can certainly be vendors or contractors who are providing some of the equipment or services.

The description that comes out of this decomposition process becomes, in fact, the work breakdown structure. All that's needed is to organize the detail items into the correct order and then record them in a document.

Real World Scenario: The "Sticky-Note" Decomposition Method

Real World Scenario: The "Sticky-Note" Decomposition Method

A decomposition technique that's often taught in project management classes utilizes the same sticky notes that you use every day in your working life—those little yellow papers that stick easily to computer screens, doors, and other surfaces but can be easily removed.

The deliverable decomposition process is an iterative one because you start with what you think is the first step in a project' s deliverable, only to discover that there are other sub-steps that have to be performed to get at the initial step. You brainstorm through the components required to put together a deliverable. Since you may think of some later tasks before you do earlier ones, the best way to go about this brainstorming process is to write each thing you identify down on a separate sticky note and then slap that note on a surface, whether that' s a table, a whiteboard, or a wall. The notes can be easily rearranged whenever you like, as you develop more and more items.

After you' ve identified all of the things you think go into making up a deliverable, check one last time that the sticky notes are all in chronological order and, voila!, you have your WBS.

Dor large projects, apply the sticky-note method one deliverable at a time: go through the process for one, then the next, and the next, and so on; then, when you' ve done them all, order the whole pile.

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