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Pen-and-Paper Method For Decomposing Your Projects

written by: Ronda Bowen • edited by: Natasha M. Baker • updated: 3/24/2013

This article takes the reader on a step-by-step overview of how to decompose project tasks before integrating them into a Work Breakdown Structure. This writer believes a pen-and-paper approach allows you to organize your thoughts into a meaningful Work Breakdown Structure.

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    Photo credit Auntie P via Flickr While there are many methods of decomposing projects, perhaps the easiest way to decompose a project for a beginner is by using a visual display of the steps and moving from the biggest steps to the smallest. This is referred to as a top-down approach.

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    Step One: Identify Project Deliverables

    The very first thing to do, when decomposing a project, is to identify the project deliverables or milestones. These deliverables will be the products that you will decompose and break down into tasks in order to produce work packages. For information on how to identify deliverables and major tasks, you may wish to read Defining Project Management Deliverables right here at Bright Hub PM or take a look at Microsoft's Goal: Define Project Deliverables.

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    Step Two: Deal With One Deliverable at at Time

    When working on decomposing deliverables – at least in the initial stages, working in the traditional media of pencil and paper creates the least amount of frustration. The best and least confusing method is to give each deliverable or milestone its own piece of paper. This way, you will have enough room to work on your rough draft. Write the deliverable at the top of the paper.

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    Step Three: Deal With Each Deliverable Individually

    By dealing with deliverables one by one, you eliminate confusion. Take the first deliverable and place the sheet of paper in front of you. Ask yourself, “In order to produce this, what is the next smallest step that must be taken?” For example, if you are preparing a large dinner for company, your deliverables would be each dish being served, the guest list, etc. If your main dish was lasagna, you would break the steps of this dish into the steps of the recipe. Note the dependent tasks. After breaking the recipe down into steps, you could further break it down into ingredients.

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    Step Four: Know When to Stop

    While the lasagna recipe has a straight-forward end, sometimes deliverables can be broken down for what seems like forever. You know you have decomposed the deliverable sufficiently when you can accurately estimate durations and cost, and you know exactly what must be done in every step. Once you complete the first deliverable, repeat the process for the second, and so on, until every deliverable and milestone have been broken down to sufficiently estimate duration and cost.

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    Step Five: Estimate Durations and Arrange Tasks into Work Packages

    Once you have broken down your deliverables, your paper might look like a mess of boxes. Now, you want to organize those boxes into work packages. The work package contains related action items that will be assigned to resources for completion. Before doing this, estimate the amount of time each task will take, then group together tasks according to type or resource required. A work package, according to Joseph Phillips in PMP Project Management Professional Study Guide, should be no smaller than eight hours' worth of work and no larger than eighty hours' worth of work.

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    Step Six: Estimate Costs

    Finally, estimate the costs of each task. This step will allow the project manager to budget the project accurately. Some tasks will have costs dependent upon the time, other tasks will require particular resources that have a cost involved. Once this is done, then the decomposed deliverables are ready to arrange in a work breakdown structure. This will be discussed in the next article in this series. For more information, see also, Ann Gordon's informative series, What is a Work Breakdown Structure?


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