This post explains how a Work Breakdown Structure can connect implementation to strategy. It can give deeper meaning to tasks at the individual level, and help align priorities to strategic objectives. At the core is purpose – for the organization, the project, and individual.
A Strategic Work Breakdown Structure – from Objectives to Personal Tasks
How do we get from here to there?
Whether our scope is personal or organizational, the challenge is similar. How do you connect ultimate long-term objectives to current tasks. And “you” means everyone, from a single individual to a member of the largest of teams!
The framework illustrated above provides a ‘path’ from the high level, long range, strategic objectives to the day to day tasks to be done by people and teams that will, in time, get you there.
We’ll take a look at each of these “steps” along the way:
- Strategic objectives
- Portfolio and program objectives
- Project objectives
- WBS tasks
- Personal tasks
What I find interesting about this set of steps is that they have a great similarity to a Work Breakdown Schedule (WBS). You start at a high level and break down, or decompose, to finer and finer granularity until you reach the personal task level.
And even when you reach the personal task level, if you are using an agile approach, you can even break those personal tasks down further into user stories, and self-managed teams can group them into sprints for an extra boost to productivity.
Let’s take a look at each of the steps, or elements, of this WBS-like framework.
Personal tasks are what people do every day. We did them long before anyone every thought of connecting them to some high level personal or organization strategic objective!
As an individual, we might feel a strong connection to our personal tasks. After all, we are steering them.
But we may find that many – maybe even most – of our personal tasks are just “things we have to do” – requirements, obligations, or “should do’s”.
This problem can become even more acute on an organizational basis, where we can feel even more strongly that we are “just doing what we have to do”. After all, it’s our job!
The question is,
“Is there a way for us, personally and collectively within an organization, to get more connected to the asks we must do? Is there a way we can feel more committed, animated, and connected to a larger purpose?”
Let’s keep going.
Moving up the hill, the next level is the breakdown of WBS (Work Breakdown Schedule) tasks.
WBS tasks can be seen as a whole. They go together. While there are individual tasks, when listed among other WBS tasks, they are organized. There may be categories based on functionality, groupings according to team, and special tasks isolated for the specialty skills required to do them.
The listing of WBS tasks gives us – and any team member – a more holistic view of the totality of the work and how the tasks are interconnected. It gets us part way there toward understanding the big picture.
But it still does not get us to any purpose – “Why are we doing these tasks?”
Let’s keep going.
Project objectives are a big step up from WBS tasks.
For project managers, the project objectives are developed early in the planning process. Personally, I like to complete a project charter at the beginning of any project where I participate, even if it is already underway. It gives me perspective, regardless of my role on the project.
The project objectives are the first connection in this chain to a purpose. They are the first opportunity you have to think about what the project needs to achieve – and why.
The project objectives should lead clearly to the set of tasks, and organized into the WBS and schedule. Keep top of mind that you are also connecting to Personal Tasks that people will spend their time doing – and you want to provide clarity in the connection each task has to the project objectives.
While you can try to articulate a strong project objective, it needs to still be connected to a larger purpose. That’s the beginning of where project management and strategy meet.
But it can get big and complicated. Let’s jump up another level and think about where the complexity at the intersection of strategy and project management is resolved.
I recommend these PM templates (paid link) –
especially the Project Charter template, which i use all the time.
It helps connect the dots to strategic objectives.
Portfolio and Program Objectives
Portfolio and program objectives are truly strategically driven – or should be. This is where strategy and project management intersect.
There is much written to guide us at this level. The Project Management Institute (PMI) has both portfolio management standards and program management standards. And it has additional guidance and standards for implementing strategy.
And there are other organizations that also provide standard guidance for strategy implementation.
The portfolio and program objectives level is another place where the objectives are disaggregated and organized. Here’s what happens for each:
Portfolio management breaks down strategic objectives into organized and well-defined initiatives – projects and programs. It maps these to elements of strategy, and organizes them, including prioritizing, as a first step toward execution.
“Portfolio management ensures that an organization can leverage its project selection and execution success. It refers to the centralized management of one or more project portfolios to achieve strategic objectives. Our research has shown that portfolio management is a way to bridge the gap between strategy and implementation.”
Program management takes an element of overall organizational strategy and organizes an initiative around it. At its core, a program is strategically driven, and it usually includes many projects as part of the program.
“A program is a group of related projects managed in a coordinated manner to obtain benefits not available from managing them individually. Program management is the application of knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to meet program requirements. Organizations with mature program management are far more successful than those without it, according to our research.”
Program and portfolio management are still very execution oriented. Let’s turn to the final and top-level – strategic objectives – where purpose is most clearly defined.
Strategic objectives are the ultimate level of determining where we will go – personally or organizationally.
If you are part of an organization – and most of us are – then your personal objectives need to be aligned with the organization’s objectives. Personally, you have objectives both inside and outside the organization. Even your portfolio of objectives needs to be prioritized so that your objectives inside and outside the organization are compatible.
Strategic objectives take effort to develop. As an individual, we need to reflect deeply on our lives, who we want to be, and what we want to achieve in order to simply develop our personal strategic objectives.
It gets even more complicated, though less personal, to develop those objectives for an organization.
Here are some relevant strategy frameworks to consider in developing the strategic objectives:
- The STaRS Transition Model – This has great applicability to both the organization and to you personally.
- Value Stick Framework – A framework for helping to determine how to measure value.
- Hassle Maps – A strategic tool for managing customer and stakeholder relationships.
- Three Generic Strategies – Basic strategies, tradeoffs, advantages, and disadvantages.
- The Diamond Model – A model for weighing international competitiveness considerations.
- Logic Tree Diagrams – A tool for sorting through messy details for clear solutions.
- Prioritization Matrix – A simple tool for identifying the highest priority, and highest value, solutions.
- The Experience Curve – Important nuances, often overlooked, to consider when devising strategy.
- 7S Framework Model – Model for assessing organization’s readiness for an initiative.
- Strategy Framework Canvas – A tool to help find the right strategic framework for the situation.
These frameworks are only the tip of the iceberg for how strategy is developed.
Strategic and Project Management Impacts
The idea here is the importance of connecting the strategy and execution.
It is very hard for someone to truly be properly motivated if they do not understand the ultimate and strategic objective.
But it is just as difficult when the process of getting from task to objective is not understood.
The process is the chain of breakdowns from strategic objectives to portfolio/program objectives to project objectives to WBS tasks to personal tasks.
The key takeaway is that as people, we need to understand the process in order to see the full impact of what we are doing. The book, “The One Thing“, by Gary Keller – especially Chapter 14.
On a personal basis – as individuals – we need this in order to connect our work to the ultimate purpose.
And when we are more connected to that ultimate purpose, we are more likely to do the one most important thing – the thing that brings 80% of the results for 20% of the effort.
As part of teams and organizations, the better we can understand this chain of connections, the more we can understand and buy into the purpose of our work.
So it’s not just a matter of understanding the ultimate purpose – but the interconnections of how our personal and team tasks lead from day to day, week to week, month to month, and year to year achievement of ultimate strategic objectives.
To get a little more sophisticated about prioritizing, consider this $25 Prioritizer Template (Excel) by Michael Carter to assist with choosing between competing options.
Conclusion and Further Resources
There is a Work Breakdown Structure for connecting implementation to strategy. It flows from tasks to WBS tasks to project objectives to portfolio and program objectives to strategic objectives. It can enable you to connect purpose to task for everyone.
What is your experience connecting tasks to purpose in prioritizing work?
The following is a good video by Mike Clayton of OnlinePMCourses, if you’d like to get more up to speed on Work Breakdown Structures: