Project Management

WBS and Product Backlog: Siblings or Distant Cousins?

Southern Alberta Chapter

Mike Griffiths is a consultant and trainer who help organizations improve performance through shared leadership, agility and (un)common sense. He maintains the blog LeadingAnswers.com.

It’s easy to believe that work breakdown structures (WBS) have been around since the pyramids were built in Egypt, and that product backlogs are new inventions by youngsters in too much of a hurry to plan properly. However, like most things, the truth is more complex.

In 1957, the Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) approach was created by the United States Department of Defense (DoD) and described organizing tasks into product-oriented categories. However, they did not use the term “work breakdown structure” or WBS until 1962 when DoD, NASA and the aerospace industry published a document about PERT that described the WBS approach.

Meanwhile, in 1960, Tom Gilb described his evolutionary value delivery approach (or Evo for short) that is widely accepted to be a forerunner of agile approaches. Evo contains principles such as:

  • E1: Decompose by performance results and stakeholders –  Break down the work into small (weekly) value delivery steps
  • E2: Do high-risk steps early – Prioritize the work based on risk
  • E3: Focus on improving your most valuable objectives first – Also prioritize the work based on business value

These ideas became the concepts embodied in backlogs by today’s agile approaches and frameworks.

So, we can trace each approach back to around the same time and also be confident these …


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