Project Management

WBS and Product Backlog: Siblings or Distant Cousins?

Mike Griffiths is an experienced project manager, author and consultant who works for PMI as a subject matter expert. Before joining PMI, Mike consulted and managed innovation and technology projects throughout Europe, North and South America for 30+ years. He was co-lead for the PMBOK Guide—Seventh Edition, lead for the Agile Practice Guide, and contributor to the PMI-ACP and PMP exam content outlines. Outside of PMI, Mike maintains the websites www.LeadingAnswers.com about leading teams and www.PMillustrated.com, which teaches project management for visual learners.


Topics: Agile, Scope Management, Work Breakdown Structures (WBS)

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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