Are activities part of the WBS?

PM Certification commentary by William Duncan, IPMA-USA Certification Director.

I got an email earlier today from an IPMA-USA member who wanted an answer to the title questions above. I told him “yes,” and he then quoted my words from the 1996 version of A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge back to me:

“The activity list must include all activities which will be performed on the project. It should be organized as an extension to the WBS to help ensure that it is complete and that it does not include any activities which are not required as part of the project scope.” (emphasis added)

To me, this argument is a total waste of time. This is project management’s version of “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” If I take the lowest level of the WBS, and break it up into 4 activities, why not just include those 4 activities as part of the WBS? Why maintain two lists? Where is the added value?

Why did I change my position? Actually, I didn’t. The words in the 1996 document represented political expediency. During reviews of various drafts, there were a bunch of people who either (a) confused the CWBS with the WBS, or (b) worked in construction where the prime doesn’t develop a complete WBS. Both groups insisted that activities should not be part of the WBS as they understood it. I accommodated them.

So while the activities may be separated from the WBS on some projects or in some application areas, the split is artificial. You can take the drawers out of your dresser and say that the drawers aren’t part of the dresser. But why?

Some may argue that the WBS contains deliverables which are nouns, while activities have a noun and a verb. True enough, but keep in mind that any deliverable can be described as an activity, and any activity can be converted into a deliverable by dropping the verb.

When we certify at IPMA-USA, we are concerned with whether or not a project manager produces results. Whether you include activities in the WBS or not may be interest to people who are writing trick questions for knowledge-based exams, but we’ll stick to evaluating performance.

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