Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Break It Down: Building a Plan with Breakdown Structures


Recently at work I’ve been assigned to work with a new team and as well as using my normal checklist to ensure a smooth handover from one project manager to the other – there’s the issue with understanding a new technology area to deal with. Often when facing a new domain of knowledge it can be quite daunting to get to grips with it. My two favoured techniques are “nibble at the edges” and work breakdown structures (WBS).

Unstructured Approach:

The first technique is not really a formal technique as such. It boils down to picking up information as I go along. As problems and risks are raised and addresses, they shine more light on the internal working of the technology in this domain. It’s a path of organic-like growth in knowledge that is rather unstructured and can lead to misunderstanding of key concepts.

In occult terms this is a bit like coming across a particular topic in passing in various books, articles and conversations. It’s not the main focus of the book and often leaves me with more questions than answers. For example,, about 4 years ago a friend lent me a book on Wicca which was quite interesting and at the back was a very brief chapter on the Sefirot (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sephirot ) and the Tree of Life. When I asked why this was included my friend stated: “Oh, for some reason that makes an appearance in a number of books.”

Structured Approach:

The second approach is called Work Breakdown Structures. A good book on this topic is: “Effective Work Breakdown Structures” by Gregory T. Haugan. The author defines (on pp.2) a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) as:
“The WBS is an outline of the work; not the work itself. The work is the sum of many activities that make upa project. A WBS may start either as an informal list of activities or in a very structured way, depending on the project and constraints, and it can end wherever the planner wants it to. The goal is to have a useful framework to help define and organize the work and then to get started doing it.”

Using that definition, the author then goes on to outline a 4-step process for creating a WBS:
“Developing the WBS is a four-step process:
  1. Specifying the project objectives and focusing on the products, services, or results to be provided to the customer.
  2. Identifying specifically the products, services or results (deliverables or end items) to be provided to the customer.
  3. Identifying other work areas in the project to make sure that 100 percent of the work is covered and to identify areas cut across deliverables, represent intermediate outputs, or complete deliverables.
  4. Subdividing each of the items in step 2 and 3 into successive, logical subcategories until complexity and dollar value of the elements become manageable units for planning and control purposes (work packages)."

OK, that’s a lot of words and unless you’re really in to Project Management you might be tempted to stop reading here – or have done so already. Hence here are some diagrams of WBS used for planning a dinner party and writing a book.

Effective Work Breakdown Structures” by Gregory T. Haugan. Figure 5-5 Bottum-up WBS for a Dinner Party

Effective Work Breakdown Structures” by Gregory T. Haugan. Figure 5-4 Sample Book Writing Report

Kabbalah in terms of WBS
Having spent a fair amount of my free time reading academic books on Kabbalah, I appreciate that it can appear to be a bit of a monolithic domain of knowledge with a learning curve like taking off in a harrier jump-jet. But once you start digging a little deeper a number of things become clear:

  1. Kabbalah is not a monolithic body of knowledge
  2. Study of Kabbalah does indeed take a lot of time for a serious student

The good news though is that using a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) it is possible to break down study of Kabbalah in to manageable chunks. A WBS for this can either be broken down by authors or along a timeline of evolution of thought in Kabbalah. For example, a simple WBS of authors could be:
  1. Martin Buber
  2. Gershom Scholem
  3. Moshe Idel

An example of WBS based on timeline could be:

  1. Merkavah and Heichalot mystics (2nd-5th century mysticism based on Vision of Divine Chariot from Ezekiel)
  2. German Pietists also known as Hasidei Ashkenaz
  3. Kabbalists of Spain and Provence
  4. Kabbalists of Safed incluing Isaac Luria and Moshe Cordovero
  5. Hassidic movement founded by the Baal Shem Tov

Another example of WBS based around chronology and author could be:

  1. Eliphas Levi (Paris 1850)
  2. Mathers (Golden Dawn 1888)
  3. Papus (Golden Dawn)
  4. Israel Regardie
  5. Dion Fortune
  6. Gareth Knight
  7. Lon Milo Duquette and chaos magic
Now it's your turn. How will use WBS to breakdown a practical or research project in to manageable bite size chunks that you can put on a timeline to create a realistic schedule?