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After you begin to develop scope clarity on a new project, create a work breakdown structure that will actually help you. If you’ve never done that, check out this blog for step-by-step instructions and an example.

A solid WBS can help drive your project from start to finish, as you work in sprints.  At the beginning of each sprint, focus intently on a handful of activities that you want to complete during that time block. Then, mark them completed by the end of each sprint. Move your focus from adjusting schedules and working on activities to actually completing activities. Try these five tips.

Five tips to help you move your focus from adjusting schedules and working on activities to actually completing activities. Share on X

Focus on the essential activities that deliver value.

Don’t get bogged down with trying to document every single step that needs to occur. If your scope identification process was done at 10,000 or 20,000 feet, think of doing this at 1,000 – 5,000 feet. You will get into the weeds later, but for now – the key is to try to identify every essential activity or work package that needs to occur in order to produce the desired scope.

When you create a work breakdown structure, think about activities that actually have value. For example, say you are working on a new advertising campaign for a client. You could wait until you have some reasonably developed products before you deliver anything, OR you could deliver some rough designs sooner. Go for getting feedback earlier to reduce waste.

If you are working on a highly innovative project, it is perfectly okay to put in placeholders that you will come back to in the future. At this point, you are trying to outline the project in a graphic way.

Create activities that can be completed in a month or less.

In the Smart Projex methodology I encourage teams to look at complexity, rather than durations; though you will, at a later point, need to focus on time to estimate costs. Here, the point is to define the work packages in your work breakdown structure in a way that allows you to finish the activities within a month or less, preferably two weeks or less. There are two reasons for this:

  • Anything longer than that has a scope that is likely too fuzzy to be helpful.
  • Teams need to be finishing and delivering work to the client (or the management team) in order to drive momentum. 

Define what ‘done’ looks like.

Remember that the goal is to be able to actually deliver work to the client (or your management team) following the completion of each activity. So, what does that work look like? Is the deliverable a PowerPoint presentation with an executive meeting about a new proposed scientific piece of equipment, a polished and printed instruction manual on the equipment, a technical requirements document to build the equipment, or a proposed instruction manual or requirements document that still needs approvals from six people? And who are those six people? The more clarity you have on what ‘done’ looks like, the more likely you are to be successful.

Define what ‘done’ looks like. The more clarity you have on what ‘done’ looks like, the more likely you are to be successful. Share on X

Brené Brown talks about this need for clarity in her book, Dare to Lead, and names it “Paint Done!” After struggling with her instructions to her assistants, she finally came up with a way of working that involved using the term Paint Done! to force the team to think through what is really needed on an activity. Anyone on your team can call out a Paint Done! at any point.

As Brown found when she and her team were looking for Paint Done! on an activity, the team is forced to wrestle with the requirements and ask tough questions. That is an informative and iterative process.

Be sure to document your definition of ‘done’ in a useful way. I have organized plenty of projects in Excel and Google spreadsheets and simply linked the cell in the WBS to a cell in another tab that details what ‘done’ means. Keep it simple. 

Assign an owner.

You may not know exactly who will perform the work on the activity, but you can assign someone to own the activity early. And you can change the owner if the need arises. You can even assign a back-up owner, and in a high-stake, time-sensitive project, unfolding in a COVID world, that makes sense.

As the project unfolds, the owner will focus on ensuring that the team’s understanding of ‘done’ hasn’t changed. And you can assume it will change. So, before you start work on any activity, clarify what ‘done’ looks like with the client.

Sometimes a lack of clarity is because the client doesn’t know what it wants. That is understandable, to a point. In this ever-changing world, we can think we know what we are doing, and after putting some effort into the project, realize that we are going in the wrong direction. The objective is to learn quickly and to stay in close contact with those who are setting direction. This includes staying in touch with the ultimate client, though I’m not suggesting that you bypass the client that hired you.

Identify the ones with critical deadlines.

In traditional project management, the focus is on the schedule. I understand this. But in a world of rapid change, adjusting schedules just simply wastes too much time.

As you begin to complete your WBS, identify the work packages that have critical deadlines. And meet those deadlines! No excuses.

The team should be able to figure out how activities are related to one another. They should be able to understand that the draft of an instruction manual needs to be finished before the final instructional manual can be printed. DUH!

Focus on your critical deadlines. As you start each sprint, select activities that are associated with your critical deadlines – to keep them moving towards the finish line.

Create a work breakdown structure (WBS) that will actually you drive your project to the finish line. Don’t let that work on the WBS go to waste.