An Introduction to Work Breakdown Structures (WBS)

Create a WBS to help organize your project into manageable pieces

Many new project managers (and some experienced ones, too) struggle with the concept of a work breakdown structure, or WBS. They put the wrong types of things into their WBS. Or they put too many elements in it, or too few. Or they treat it as a schedule, or a plan, or a chronological listing of actions that have to be performed. Or perhaps they eschew the need for a WBS altogether. Fortunately, all of these are correctable mistakes.

A simplified Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) for the construction of an office building. This is just a partial WBS, and are many missing elements in this example, such as procurement of land, permitting, outfitting and furnishing, etc.

A simplified Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) for the construction of an office building. This is just a partial WBS, and are many missing elements in this example, such as procurement of land, permitting, outfitting and furnishing, etc.

PM Success Habit #7: Don’t Just Manage– Lead!

Effective leadership begins with character

Core Character Traits: Trustworthy, Decisive and Professional

“Say what you think, and do what you say.” –Dr. Tony Beasley, Director, National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO)

“Walk the walk, don’t just talk the talk.” – Dr. William Burgett, Deputy Project Manager, Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT)


PM Success Habit #6: Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Listen, Disseminate, and Document -- In A Highly Organized Manner

Core Habits & Skills: Listening, Disseminating, Documenting, Information Management

“The problem with communications is the belief they have occurred.” – Dr. Matt Mountain, President, Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), past-Director of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) project.

One of the most commonly cited ingredients for success listed in the survey was successful communication.  A majority of the forty-three highly experienced PMs that we interviewed commented on the importance of constant, transparent & honest communication, disseminating information efficiently, follow-up and documenting as important job functions.


PM Success Habit #5: Meeting Stakeholder Expectations

Engage & invest stakeholders in contributing to project success

Core Habits & Skills: Know Your Stakeholders and Consistently and Honestly Communicate With Them

“Ultimately, your key stakeholders decide whether you have been successful or not. You have to keep them informed so that you can mange their expectations. So the first order of business is to define the Who, What, When, and How’s related to these most important people. Who are your key stakeholders? What information do they need to know? When do they need to know it? And how do they want to receive that information?” – P. Gretchen, Program Manager, Honeywell

Most projects have attached to them many types and categories of external stakeholders. Chief among these in large scientific engineering projects are funding agencies, partner institutions, and the scientific community that will benefit from the project upon completion. As a whole, most experienced project managers understand that these stakeholders represent their “customer base,” and that their interpretation of how the project is or isn’t meeting its goals is paramount to the perception of project success that gets promulgated to the outside world. Said another way, if the qualitative expectations of its key stakeholders are not met, a project can be permanently tainted with an air of failure, even if its entire scope is delivered on time, within budget, and to the required quality specifications.


Managing stakeholders–and their expectations–is a key tp project management success.

PM Success Habit #4: Build & Empower Effective Project Teams

The importance of hiring great people-- and firing the bad apples

Core Habits & Skills: Hire the Best People You Can, Define Their Responsibilities, and Empower Them

“Your staff needs to be self-aware (know what you do not know), humble (willing to learn), agile (make timely decisions), results oriented (rather than ideological) and optimized for the project (rather than for themselves).” – Dr. Thomas Glasmacher, Project Director, Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB)

“The most important thing I do in leading one of these projects is hire the best and right people.” – Dr. Gary Sanders, Project Manager, Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT)

“I can tell you number one is to form or develop a team that is aligned, motivated and empowered on how to get the job done.” – Jim Oschmann, Vice President and General Manager, Ball Aerospace


The majority of highly effective PMs we surveyed agreed that hiring the best people you can afford–and firing the dead wood–is fundamental to project success.

PM Success Habit #3: Make Lemonade From Lemons

Systematically Manage Risk-- And Look For Opportunities in Realized Risks

Core Habits & Skills: Proactively and Systematically Manage Risks

“Aggressively manage risks and opportunities. Don’t let problems go unaddressed or look for the cheapest solution possible. Significant risks that go unaddressed typically manifest themselves as much larger issues later.” –Scott C. Asbury, Ball Aerospace Senior Program Manager, Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) Spacecraft.

“Good project managers regularly and systematically manage risks on and to their projects. Or they don’t sleep at night. You can choose.” – D. Smith, Honeywell Engineering Manager

Forty-eight percent (48%) of PMs surveyed said that proactive management of risk was vital to their project success. Further, the majority of these mentioned the need for formalized methodologies to do so. Typically, these methods follow a standard six-step iterative loop:

Risk Management Process

The standard 6-step risk management process is a fundamental core skill of any competent project manager

PM Success Habit #2: Strive For Win-Win Procurements

Strong Systems Engineering Approach to Procurements Management

Core Habits & Skills: Employ a Strong Systems Engineering Approach to Procurements

“Test, test, test.” – Dr. William Burgett, Deputy Project Manager, Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT)

A strong systems engineering (SE) approach to procurements is a key factor to basic project management success. Thirty-five percent (35%) of respondents in our survey mentioned SE as a vital ingredient to their projects. There are many important aspects to SE that need to be addressed, but three things were most commonly cited in the survey: 

v-diagram used in project management

Managing the flow down and traceability of requirements (e.g., via a V-diagram Systems Engineering approach) is a core aspect to managing procurements.

Project Management Success Habit #1: Prioritize the Definition of Success

Scope, Quality, Budget, & Schedule-- Decide which is the most important.

Core PM Habits & Skills: Early Definition & Formal Documentation of Success

“Ensure you understand scope, that it’s well defined, and that it doesn’t keep changing.” -Alistair McPherson, Square Kilometer Array (SKA) Project Manager

The logic might sound a little circular, but the majority (>63% surveyed) of competent Project Managers (PMs) stated that project success hinged on first defining what project success is. In other words, they understood that they had to completely define the “what” they were tasked with delivering, and also what constraints and boundary conditions they have to deliver that “what” under. Many of the PMs stated that they did this by fast-forwarding to the end of the project and imagining what a successfully completed project would appear like to them, their customer, and key stakeholders. If they’re tasked with building a scientific “device,” they ensured they took the time to determine exactly what that means:

  • Product Scope. They know exactly what the delivered device is and what are its major constituent parts and functions;
  • Quality Requirements. They understand exactly how “good” the overall device needs to be upon delivery, along with how good each of its constituent parts need to be;
  • Schedule. They know when the required handover date of the device to the customer is; and,
  • Budget. They know how much money and resources are required and available to build the device.
scope, quality, schedule, budget

Scope and the triple constraints of quality, schedule, and budget.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Project Managers

Introduction to the Series on Excellence in Project Management

Why do some engineering projects struggle while others excel? There are obviously many different factors that can and do influence the outcome of any given project, but one of the most important is the combined skills and qualifications of the project manager (PM) at the helm.

But this begs an obvious question: what exactly makes a project manager “skilled and qualified?” Asked another way, are there common traits, philosophies, and/or techniques that the most successful PMs share, and if so, what are they?

The short answer is yes, the majority of highly successful engineering project managers have significant skills, habits, and character traits in common. The longer answer is while there are common “core” skills and abilities that all PMs must have and implement to succeed, there are additional abilities that the most successful do that take their projects from good to great. Over the course of the next seven posts, I’m going to delve more deeply into these differences. 

There are many factors that contribute to a project's success, but perhaps none more important than the project manager (PM) at its helm.

There are many factors that contribute to a project’s success, but perhaps none more important than the project manager (PM) at its helm.

Travel Budgets

The importance of face-to-face meetings

When planning a distributed project, it’s important to budget sufficiently for travel. There is no substitute for face-to-face, in-person meetings. In this post I discuss the importance of business travel, and why you need to budget appropriately for you and your team to travel.

airplane wing

Few people actually like to travel for business, but it’s a necessary evil. In fact, it’s often a vital ingredient to project management success. Make sure you budget appropriately for you and your people to be where they need to be–when they need to be.