Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Simplified, but not too simple

In a couple of classes, we teach a basic project management concept - the Work Breakdown Structure. It's an outline of the tasks that need to be performed, with related tasks grouped into phases. It can get complicated, depending on how many levels deep you want to create your outline, but once you can go two levels deep, you can go further if you choose.

A student was for some reason offended that as part of the discussion of the WBS, my colleague used a simple example of making a peanut butter sandwich. For the case study the students complete as part of the course, it's much more complex than that, obviously. But before being able to apply the concept of the WBS to an advanced situation, you start with applying it to a basic situation. It's a common technique that many of us use. You take a very simple task that many of us do all the time, such as making a sandwich and break it down so that you can focus attention on what matters - in this case, the WBS. I will sometimes do an example with cooking a steak and making a salad. Nothing big and fancy, but people understand the basics of cooking and realize that you want to time things right so that both parts of the meal are ready at the same time. Even people who can't cook understand the annoyance when the waiter at a restaurant brings some people their food but some of the plates aren't ready yet. I usually let the students choose what example they want to use.

Instead of splitting their attention between two topics - the WBS and programming an ERP system (or doing construction on a skyscraper or whatever other more complex example you might want to come up with), you just focus on the WBS. If someone doesn't know what an ERP system is, you wouldn't want to spend a lot of time dealing with that when you should be focusing on the topic at hand.

The funny thing about making a sandwich is that it's simple on purpose, but when you're done with breaking it down, you realize it's not as simple as it seems (although maybe this student didn't catch this point). The idea is you take something everyone knows and you help them break it down to a level of detail that goes a little beyond what they normally would write in order to establish what assumptions they may be making without realizing it. This transfers to other more complex projects very well.

Get out a piece of bread, but what if you're out of bread? Are you baking your own bread, too? You have to start with a build vs. buy analysis first to compare the quality of and time to bake the homemade bread to your options to get to the store and buy some.

Is the bread already sliced? How thick?

Put the end of the knife in the jar of peanut butter, oh, but did you open the jar first?

Are the stakeholders expecting bananas, sprinkles, toasted bread, seedless jam? Anyone who has made a sandwich for a toddler knows the struggle.

If you have an example that is too complicated, then the students can get distracted by something that is too hard and they don't understand the example well enough to be able to challenge assumptions and pick out what might be missing. Using a simple example lets them focus on the concepts being taught and how to break down the work instead of on trying to figure out the example itself.

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