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October 27, 2010

Legal Project Management (Part 16): Work breakdown structures

If you’ve read about our “just in time, just enough” approach to training, you know that I am not a fan of teaching project management concepts and terminology in the abstract.  Instead, we prefer a “jump right in” approach, in which we coach each individual lawyer to find the action items that fit their immediate needs and ignore the rest. 

This week’s post is dedicated to our other clients, the ones who take our half-day “Legal Project Management 101” course because they prefer to start by mastering basic concepts.  For these folks, work breakdown structures may be the most important concept in the entire project management literature.

Whenever I write about topics like this, I always turn first to Eric Verzuh’s book, The Fast Forward MBA in Project Management.  I like this 462-page reference book so much that I buy a copy for each person who joins our team, no matter how much experience and training they’ve had in the past. The book does not mention lawyers a single time, but it does give a comprehensive overview of the strategies and tactics that have proven successful in other professions.  It defines today’s term very simply:

The work breakdown structure identifies all the tasks in a project; in fact, a WBS is sometimes referred to simply as a task list (p. 126)…This is the secret of successful project management: Break the project into small, meaningful, manageable units of work (p. 134).

Like playing golf or closing a sale, this is not as easy as it looks.  When I spoke at Bruce MacEwen’s recent workshop on alternative fee arrangements, one lawyer in the audience talked about his firm’s experience in trying to organize a complex litigation into simple tasks.  They wanted to create a Gannt chart/logical outline that reassured a large client that their cases were being handled efficiently.  But they ended up with a list that was so long and Byzantine that it made the client feel worse.

Verzuh explained the problem this way:

Because a good work breakdown structure is easy to read, people often assume that it’s also easy to write.  This, however, is a false assumption; there are large numbers of inaccurate and poorly developed work breakdown structures produced every year (p. 133).

The Wikipedia entry on work breakdown structure describes five common pitfalls and misconceptions for work breakdown structures, including:

It is considered poor practice to construct a project schedule (e.g. using project management software) before designing a proper WBS. This would be similar to scheduling the activities of home construction before completing the house design.

Wikipedia also has an entire section devoted to the question of “when to stop dividing work into smaller elements.”  This is especially challenging for detail-oriented lawyers – how much detail is enough?

Wikipedia’s advice on detail is similar to the advice I give in the Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide:

Each activity should be budgeted for a manageable chunk of time (typically 8 to 40 hours) to give team members freedom to perform the task as they think best while still assuring accountability (page 9).

To be honest, the fine points of creating a work breakdown structure simply don’t matter to most lawyers.  Most of our clients make tremendous progress without ever hearing the term, often by focusing on such simple tactics as tracking spending in real time, staffing matters differently, and communicating more systematically with clients.

For the few lawyers who need a sophisticated work breakdown structure, like the litigators in the workshop I mentioned above, my advice is to hire a pro.  For all the rest, I say the next time a certified project manager asks you about your work breakdown structure, think of it as a very well-designed task list.

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