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Decomposition in Project Management

written by: Ronda Bowen • edited by: Michele McDonough • updated: 8/14/2009

Is project decomposition a good thing or a bad thing? In this introduction to decomposition in project management, Ronda Levine looks at how this process can steamline any project.

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    Defining Decomposition

    Photot credit Auntie P via Flickr While it sounds like something you don’t want to happen when planning a project, decomposition can be a useful tool when managing projects. Decomposition is a technique used in project management that breaks down the workload and tasks before the creation of the work breakdown structure. This important step can save time in the long run.

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    Overview of the Decomposition Process

    Roughly, there are six steps involved with the decomposition process. Once you have determined the project objectives, you will need to gather the information involving the project’s deliverables and the tasks that have already been determined. Knowing what needs to be produced as the end products and knowing the important milestones will help guide the project to keep it on course.

    Once deliverable and task information has been gathered, decomposition takes a top-down approach to determining tasks and subtasks. The project manager will break down the biggest items (deliverables, milestones, major tasks) into the smallest tasks. This process can occur in the work breakdown structure format, or it can be completed as a mind map and structured later. The idea is to move from the most general aspects of the project to the most specific and detailed tasks in the project. For example, if you are writing a technical manual, you would break it down into its smallest components – chapters. Each chapter could be broken down into research, outline, draft, revision, print-ready copy.

    Once the project has been broken down into the smallest tasks, then work packages can be created. A work package is a collection of related action items that can be assigned to a resource as a sub-set of the whole of work that must be created. Double-check that the project has been sufficiently decomposed into the smallest parts possible.

    Finally, the project manager will organize the work packages into the work breakdown structure. Each package can be assigned a specific code. Once the work breakdown structure creation is completed, then the work packages are assigned to resources.

    When done properly, decomposition will make clear the relevance of each task to the bigger project picture. The next article in this series deals with the benefits of project decomposition in project management.

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