If You Build It (a WBS), Your Project Will Come (Together)

As this is being published, I am enjoying the vacation that I am planning in these blog posts. Behold the power of modern technology! Time travel! With any luck, I have remembered to turn work emails off on my phone and am enjoying heaven in Minnesota in June without any disturbances. I might be camping on Lake Superior, even as you read this.

OK. So I know I told you in the last entry that this one would be about how proficient I suddenly am at using Microsoft Projects. Alas, epic tales of my success at jumping into Project 2010 will have to wait. Apparently, I was putting the cart a little bit ahead of the horse.

As I was watching Dux’s video primer on using Microsoft Project, he said that he, as a programmer, first fired up Project intending to conquer it the first time he looked at it. You know, kind of like I promised to do in my last post. He also said that Project kind of assumes that you’re familiar with some of the fundamentals of the PM process. Which, as an IT guy, he was not. He says, at about 10:30 in the screencast, that once he opened up Project, he just stared at it for a couple of hours, not really knowing exactly what to do with it.

Suddenly, I don’t feel quite as stupid as I did before. If even Dux, who is now a PM rock star, grappled with Microsoft Project the first time he looked at it, then maybe I’m not the complete moron I was beginning to think I might be.

But I’m not avoiding my project! OK, so I’m not rolling my sleeves and becoming an instant Microsoft Project guru, but I’m finished with philosophies and avoidance. I’m doing the thing.

Watching Dux’s screencast, I realized that before I do anything with Microsoft Project, I needed to create a WBS. A WBS is a Work Breakdown Strategy, and it is one of the very first things you do when you’re planning out a project. Dux discusses developing a WBS in a screencast called Project Planning 101. When I was chatting with him about it after realizing I needed to do this before I did anything in Project, Dux described a WBS as a “brain dump.” You throw in all the things you need to do to make your project happen so you can see all the various components and contingencies of your project laid out before you. You’re not organizing it, you’re not ordering it, you’re not arranging it you’re just brainstorming all the stuff you’re gonna need for your project to come together.

So I sat down with an old skool pen and a legal pad and drew out a basic WBS for my vacation. Once I decide to take a vacation, what steps should I take to make it happen, from conception to stepping off the plane? Dux recommends using a mind map, but you can probably make a list for very simple projects. Like on a napkin or something if you don’t have a legal pad handy.

My particular WBS goes a little something like this (a-one and a-two and…)

  1. Select location
  2. Select accommodations (for me, steps 1 and 2 go hand-in-glove: a friend in Minnesota invited me to come to see her and stay with her, and thus my vacation was born)
  3. Book flight
  4. Send a friend flight itinerary
  5. Research and plan activities
  6. Create packing list
  7.  Do laundry
  8. Pack
  9. Research airport parking (because I don’t travel often, I have never used the long-term parking at the airport, and I don’t know how to do it)
  10. Research luggage limits and parameters (really, I should get out of the house more often. I know nothing about how to travel any way but by car)
  11. Pull cash for the trip.
  12. Put together documentation/paper for the trip (driver’s license, plastic money, paper money, itinerary)
  13. Go to airport
  14. Turn off my work email on the phone, so I am truly disconnected from civilization.
  15. Fly off into the wild, blue Minnesota
  16. Begin an awesome week of vacation with my friend

For you, your vacation WBS might include getting a pet sitter, stopping your newspaper, arranging to have someone drop you at the airport so you don’t have to pay for long-term parking, and other items pertinent to your vacation (project). It’s vacation season, so why don’t you play along if you’re new to Project 2010?

We are not, in fact, the only people who have used Project to plan a vacation. Arpan Shah, who used to be the Director of Microsoft Project and is now a Director of the SharePoint Project Management Team over at Microsoft, planned a three-month sabbatical using Project Professional. I am doing it for practice because my trip is simple, and I already know a few things I need to do, but Arpan’s Project plan was real and practical.

I have only just begun paying attention to my WBS, so as I watch the screencasts more, I may have more items to add to it. In fact, I almost certainly will because I am forgetful. Some of my tasks will have sub-tasks. Some of my tasks may have dependencies (which is the relationship between the tasks and what needs to be done when, if I understand correctly). I will finish watching Dux’s screencasts and then sit back down with my WBS, add whatever squiggles it needs, and then, maybe, I’ll be ready to plug some of this data into Microsoft Project.