An Agile coach’s journey into PMI country – Where PMI got cocky.

Posted By on Jan 30, 2010

My journey is actually the PMI bootcamp – A five day course to prepare for the PMP certification, completed with fellow Agile coach – and it has allowed us to see some great stuff.

To the left, we had beautiful Rolling Waves and to the right, Progressive Elaboration. Most days were warm and sunny in PMI country – running through the green fields of cost, risk, and talent, oops! HR management. But these dark clouds kept showing up once in a while and without warning, a bolt of lightning would reveal this official process: “Create Work Breakdown Structure” a.k.a. the WBS.

What we’ve got here is process number 3.4.4 in the PMBoK and this, I believe, is where the PMI got cocky. WBS is so central to the PMI that our trainers would actually say that if you don’t have the answer to a certification question and WBS is one of the options – choose it!

Throughout the PMI-PMP bootcamp training I kept asking myself the same question – If these PMI trainers recognize the distinctive nature of project management within software development, why am I getting so much resistance in the field?

My last blog generated some parallel discussions in the Scrum Practionners Group on LinkedIn, and some of the replies did shed some light.

Doug Shimp stated:

“The difference [between a WBS and the Product Backlog ] is big and forms a paradigm shift in thinking equivalent in magnitude as going from procedural code to object code. This is not easy and takes most people months to understand by doing an applied practice.”

He continued to say:

“This is one area I see messed up so often, it is painful. Our training community must get much better at understanding and teaching this stuff. For PMs coming from an long history of using an activity based WBS the change to an agile/scrum format can be quite head rattling.”

This is exactly why my colleague and I attended the PMI training. We need to understand where PMs are coming from. What are those things that prevent PMs from making the shift? The WBS seems to be one of the culprits. I’m not saying a WBS is not practical or even essential in some cases. Maybe upper management demands this type of breakdown and is not quite ready to deal with a simple and naive release burnup chart based on tested and working software, available on a pre-production server. Ok, I’m being a bit facetious. I do see value in a high level WBS that identifies product AND project requirements. I’d just assume use a mindmap but that might be too “fluffy” for some. There I go again. A WBS can provide some great value by:

  • Defining deliverables
  • Helping to define what DONE means
  • Establishing a common language
  • Setting up Organizational Breakdown Structure (OBS)
  • Managing change

I might even encourage a team to create a WBS and link it up to their Product Backlog if I thought it would add value to the project. But for the most part, the Scrum teams I work with start with a Product Vision broken down into clear business objectives. We then identify the Epics required to achieve those objectives and wrap up with just enough User Stories to get started.

One thing, new agility seeking organizations can be certain of, is that WE WILL set aside the WBS, just like we would any other “traditional” tools and methodologies. I might recognize the immense potential value of their WBS, but as an experiment, we’ll leave all that aside, start anew, and see what happens. Every 2 to 4 weeks, we’ll inspect, adapt and start yet another experiment.

Of course there are those PMs who resist and feel the need to create a WBS and break it down as quickly as possible to the task level. You can imagine their reaction when I tell them that the team will do this at “the latest most responsible moment”. Some PMs almost pee their pants when I add the fact that “the latest most responsible moment” is actually one day before we start coding. I must admit – I do enjoy that one. (Yes, I do practice “Situational Coaching”, and in some cases, “TELLING” offers the highest return on investment)

At issue here is not the potential value of a WBS, but the obligatory use of one. Actually, I wonder if OPM3 would consider our Agile teams “immature” for not having this. Would it recognize the fact that we compensate or even exceed the value of a WBS with Agile related artefacts and ceremonies? CMMi Level 3 does!

But who am I to criticize the fact that the WBS is a required process and not just an optional tool? Scrum does require the use a Product and Sprint Backlog. They’re not optional tools but nonnegotiable artefacts. But there is one difference; Scrum is all about software development. It’s not interested in building sky scrapers or highways. PMI boasts that their processes apply to “all of the above” projects, and I’m fine with that. But if it wants to remain credible, it needs to abstract this WBS process. I’d call it the…Work Refinement through Execution Process. The WRX…I like the sound of that! 😉 It might include various tools and techniques such as a WBS, Product and Work (not to say Sprint) Backlog, and some activities to get these to evolve throughout a project.

I think the sun is coming out again. Time to go play with Project Communications Management…

Submit a Comment