Show me the work

Show me the work

Project management consultant and GCI guest columnist Frank Ryle offers up a round of golf as an example for superintendents to better manage products at their facility. He introduces a step-by-step approach to managing any project.

April 9, 2012

Many times you will hear people say at the end of a project that it was a lot more work than they had envisioned at the start of the process. One of the greatest challenges in any project is the ability to represent the actual amount of work necessary to satisfy the requirements of the various stakeholders prior to giving any commitments on duration and cost in the schedule and budget. 

For example, on a typical golf course project we may underestimate or overlook:

  • The need for local planning permits;
  • Environmental requirements;
  • Particular landscaping requirements;
  • The effort required to get agreements and decisions;
  • A requirement to maintain a certain level of play during the project;
  • The amount of work required to tidy up after the main construction.

This can lead to unpaid overtime and also payments to sub-contractors for changes later in the project. A project manager needs to keep all of this “work” in mind as he or she plans the other necessary dimensions of a project including time involved, cost, risks, resources and quality.

In my book "Keeping Score: Project Management for the Pros," I introduce a nine step approach to managing any project and place the steps on a nine-hole golf course. This simple metaphor allows you to understand the sequence of the steps. The par of each hole/step relates to the amount of work a project manager would need to do relative to the other holes.

This short article relates to the fourth hole – the Work Breakdown Structure, commonly called a WBS. The WBS is a graphical representation of all the work and only the work needed to complete your project. This step follows after you have clearly defined the objectives of the project (first hole), analyzed the various stakeholders (second hole) and fully understood their particular requirements of the project (third hole).

There are many valid opinions on “how” to manage projects and to incorporate these ideas I introduced three main characters to pursue these perspectives in the book:

  • Edward represents the perspective of someone who is very experienced on projects and trusts his intuition and people skills.
  • Bob represents the views of an operations manager, someone who comes from a very controlling environment and sees benefits in processes, measurement, and accountability.
  • Louise represents an academic, theoretical perspective and is also an expert golfer. 

In the book the three are challenged to create a project management framework or approach to assist a company in desperate need of help. Each character sets out a case for inclusion of their ideas and beliefs in the final format. Fortunately, all are keen golfers and find comfort and interesting parallels in the game to help with their conflicts, communication, and even the very structure of the final approach to managing any project.

Here is a short section from the book related to the WBS.

“Okay, here goes,” said Louise. “Have you ever had trouble explaining to your boss or any senior person, perhaps even a client how much work is involved in a project?

“I just don’t see it.” She tried to mimic the boss’s accent. “I don’t see why it should take so long and cost so much as well!”

“You sound just like him,” said Bob. “We generally agree to disagree and one of us gets to say ‘I told you so’ in the end. Normally it’s him!”

“Or what works for me sometimes,” said Edward, “is just to say ‘trust me.’”

“It might work for you because of your grey hair,” said Louise gently ribbing him, “but it will not work for some of your younger project managers.”

Bob smiled approvingly at Louise. He was impressed by the way she was adapting her style to manage Edward.
“Classical project management theory,” she continued, “talks of the triple constraints of Scope, Time, and Cost.” She drew the familiar triangle on the board with the words on the bases.

“In theory, one side of this triangle cannot be changed without affecting the other sides. However, in practice I am hearing about an excessive growth in unpaid and untracked overtime which makes a mockery of the triangle concept. Employees are acting like willing slaves as it basically allows an increase in the project scope without affecting either the cost or time recorded.”

“It does, of course, also affect motivation,” said Edward, “and therefore an individual’s productivity in the longer term.”

    “Very true,” said Louise, “and you will need to take into account of all of these practicalities as you develop your approach. The key point here is that we have to fully develop the scope here,” she pointed to the bottom line of the triangle, “to the required level of confidence before we start to calculate the time and cost of the project. And remember that this is only the fourth hole on our golf course analogy.”

    “Hold on a second,” said Bob. “Just remind me again so that I don’t get lost here. So the project charter was the first hole. The stakeholder analysis was the second hole and the requirements management was the third? Is that right?

    “Correct,” said Edward, “and if you remember the first was a par three, the second was a par four, and the third was a par five. This one is a par four.”

    “Teachers pet,” said Bob pointing at Edward.

     “When was the last time either of you did a jigsaw puzzle? asked Louise.

    Both men looked at each other amused.

    “I’m not talking about the 10-piece one but the larger 500- or 1000-piece type,” she added.

    “Years ago,” said Bob. “Why do you want to know?”

    “Well, work with me here,” said Louise. She took a cardboard box that was lying beside her and opened it to show the contents. “As soon as I open the box you can see that it is not 50 pieces but more like 500 pieces and therefore much more work. Anybody could see that immediately, even Mark.”

    “This simple visualization,” she continued “of the amount of work to be completed during execution is all that we are trying to convey in the work breakdown structure or more commonly, the WBS. The work can be traced back to satisfy the requirements of the stakeholders to meet the project goal.”

    “Let me put it another way,” said Louise “Would you buy a 100-piece jigsaw with only 87 pieces in the box?”

    “Of course not,” said Bob. “I see them at garage sales all the time. I wouldn’t even give you a dollar for it.”

    “Just like many people,” said Louise. “The completion of the jigsaw is a big part of the satisfaction of the project.”

    “Now another question,” she looked at Edward. “Have you ever started to execute a project without knowing all the work required?”

    “Every time,” said Edward, smiling at the nice connection that she had drawn.

    “You are not alone,” said Louise. “I doubt that any project has ever been started with the full scope, and it is unlikely to change in your case. We have all become habituated to the fact that we have to manage the work requirements and expectations of the stakeholders based on incomplete information.”

    “But we do get it done in the end, don’t we?” said Edward. “Isn’t that why we have a contingency?”

    “No, that is a common mistake, the contingency should be kept for risks that occur during the project,” said Louise pointing towards the triangle. “However, as more work is discovered you have two primary options, either to ask for a change request or be creative. Isn’t that right Edward?”

    “What does she mean?” asked Bob.

    “I guess,” said Edward, “that she means cutting corners, reducing quality, increasing risk, and all the other tricks we do. But mostly it is just painfully unpaid overtime.”

    “Correct,” said Louise, “And if your new project department is to survive and be successful then you cannot continue to rely on these methods. So the purpose of this step is to have a document or model to represent all the work and only the work on the project.”

    “I do like the jigsaw analogy,” said Bob. “I can almost imagine asking each project manager developing one before they finish planning. What would the document look like? And how small should the pieces be?”
    Louise drew a diagram that looked like a standard organization chart on the board.

    “Like this, said Louise, “and ideally the whole project work should be decomposed into what we now call ‘work packages.’” She drew a circle around the lowest level.  “These are often described as a piece or unit of work that can be given to an individual or group with a guide size of approximately 40 to 80 hours of work effort.”

    “Also if I remember rightly from my PMP exam,” added Edward, “they should be decomposed into physical deliverables to help with tracking later.”

    “Good point,” said Louise. “Each work package should be described by a verb/noun combination. In other words, ‘Do/This’ which can be reversed later to ‘This/Done’. The deliverable technique will allow you to be more objective and unemotional when you come to track progress later in the project.”

The point of this short excerpt is that a clear WBS can help us develop a better schedule and budget for any project. A simple and practical way to do this is to write the “work packages” on index cards or post-it notes and place them on a wall somewhere. Then you and your colleagues can grab a cup of coffee and check to see that you have all the work prior to giving any commitments.

Having all of the work packages can also be enormously useful when you are creating the budget and schedule for your project.  You can add additional cards for personal “tasks” that will take place during the project timeline, such as staff vacations or a team member’s wedding to develop a realistic schedule.  Once you assign roles and responsibilities, you can get the entire project team together to “walk” out the tasks and visualize the entire project.  The WBS can also help you clarify and agree on what is included in the project scope, and what is excluded.

For golf course project management, the use of golf as a metaphor goes a bit further that the simple nine steps. As you well know, a good golfer needs a simple, reliable and repeatable swing that can work in the various playing conditions encountered. Likewise a good project manager needs a simple, reliable and repeatable “approach” to any project in the various conditions encountered.  The WBS will help get you there. 
Good luck on both your projects and your courses.

About the author:
Frank Ryle, PMP, has taught project management to more than 10,000 students in 22 countries and has more than 20 years of international engineering project management experience. A scratch golfer, Ryle learned to golf at age 10 in his native Ireland and competed as a professional in the first European Challenge Tour Russian Open. He is the author of Keeping Score: Project Management for the Pros (IIL Publishing, April 2012,