Project Practitioners > Having a "breakdown" to avoid a "meltdown"

Having a "breakdown" to avoid a "meltdown"

By Sinikka Waugh

This is impossible.  We’ll never be able to pull this off.  I’m overwhelmed.  We’re panicked.  It can’t be done.  I can’t get my arms around this thing.  I can’t even figure out where to start.

Have you heard any of these lately?  Or uttered them yourself?  I have…Mostly, I hear them in places where the “what” and the “why” of the project or task at hand are pretty clear, but the “how” seems elusive.  Someone is stuck, either because they truly don’t know how to go through the exercise of defining the “how,” or because they aren’t choosing to take time to do it.  There’s so much work that has to be done, right now, we’re barely given enough time to do the work, let alone properly plan it …

Strange topic for a site that specializes in Project Management, isn’t it?  I mean, for heavens’ sake, isn’t planning a huge part of what project managers do?

But anyone can get overwhelmed if the project or task at hand is just too big, too unfamiliar, too daunting.  And if the PM is frustrated, you can bet the team is too.  There will be meetings and conversations with lots of talk but no action; it will feel like the wheels are just spinning; the team will look at the work ahead and the lack of progress made so far and become overwhelmed.  There’s that word again;  overwhelmed.

Do you know the look when you see it?  Do you know it in yourself? 

The tired eyes, the drawn face, jaw clenched in frustration, corners of the mouth curved into a frown…One hand rubbing the temples, or the forehead, or the back of the neck…Overwhelmed…On the verge of a meltdown.

I’d like to suggest a way to avert the impending meltdown…it’s called a breakdown. 

Break down the work.  It’s the whole science behind the Work Breakdown Structure – but you don’t have to have formal project management training, or an automated project management tool to do it.  This exercise can be done on a blank sheet of paper or two, or even a cocktail napkin if that’s all that’s handy.  And it doesn't take much time at all.

The exercise is to make a list...a “breakdown list.”  Set aside a few minutes to take a deep breath, and simply make a list.

1) Break the “thing” down into smaller pieces. 

Ask yourself what smaller components make up the bigger “thing.”  I don’t propose breaking it down into project lifecycle management phases, here, I’m talking about breaking down the concepts of the end solution. 

For example, if you were planning an event, I’m not talking about “planning the event and holding the event”.  I’m talking about things that make up the event…the location, the date, the food, the band, the invitee list, the rain date, the travel and parking arrangements, the accommodations, the agenda… 

Think about a Business Analyst on a 6-month initiative.  Is it really useful for them to have a single task called “requirements”?  No!  Maybe that’s the single bucket used for time tracking, but it’s not a particularly helpful way to break down the work!  Even if you say, “gather requirements,” “document requirements,” “requirements walkthroughs” and “requirements signoff” …does that help?  Not really.  But if the list is broken down by functionality or by deliverable, it becomes more manageable.  Each item on the list becomes more tangible and meaningful – easier to prioritize, estimate, start.

2) Take a closer look at the buckets.

Once you have those smaller buckets, look at them closely and see if they need to be broken down again.  Ask yourself if any of these listed items are still overwhelming. 

Back to our event example, thinking about “the food” – that’s still a pretty big topic.  There are decisions to be made (have food or don’t; dinner or appetizers; buffet or sit-down; hot or cold; price range…and then of course are the beverages and all the decisions to be made there); there are also tasks around identifying and securing a caterer, actually ordering the food, making any last-minute changes or adjustments, and paying for the food when it’s all done. 

And you could go through that same thought process for every one of your topics or categories.

3) Fill in what you already know. 

Ask yourself if there are things that you already know.  For example, have some of the decisions already been made?  Are there specific review boards with a set meeting schedule, or approval processes that have a pre-defined schedule and process that you need to include in your list?  Are there dates that are already set? 

Using the event example again, if the “event” is a benefit dinner of some sort, that may not be as time-sensitive, but if it’s an election-night or Oscar-night or New Year’s Eve party, then the date is already set. 

Maybe you’ll be able to check things off your list; maybe it will help you flesh out your list.  Either way, when faced with uncertainty, it’s encouraging to know that there are some things that are certain.

And that’s it.  A few minutes of silence.  Just you and your list.  You’ve just put order to chaos.  You’ve taken time to collect your thoughts.  You now have something tactical, tangible that you can take to your team for input and review, so that collectively, you’ll have something to start working with, and things you can start “checking off”.

Okay, so I’m a self-proclaimed list-maker…I’ve even been guilty (on more than one occasion) of adding something to my list of things to do – after it was already done – just so I could check it off the list. 
But even for the non-list makers, the breakdown list can be a useful tool to help avoid a meltdown!

Related Links
See our guideline on Task Identification and Work Breakdown for more details on how to develop a useful work breakdown for your project. To see a WBS on a small scale, check out this one for planning a dinner party. Our scheduling page has more examples.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

GREAT article, infused with common sense on an often-frustrating and "overwhelming" topic.

Thanks, Dave! I appreciate the feedback! Just this week, I had a chance to work with a group who was finding ways to push through "overwhelm" by making a list and checking it twice... =) Sounds seasonally appropriate, doesn't it!

Good article for junior PMs. Thank you.
Do you have anything similar for Project Administrators?

Thanks, Lizette! I'm glad you found it useful! Many of the project admins I know are detail-oriented list makers. They are often pattern finders and process-repeaters, and in my experience, they are often strong adopters of whatever software tool they're using to schedule and manage the project. And sometimes, the reality that every project is unique can be flustering.

List-making will be right up their alley - and they'll likely want to create lists specifically pertaining to the role they play and the information gathering and reporting they'll have to do. Being familiar with the industry standard project management deliverables, plus the requirements for their specific environment can help eliminate some of the "overwhelm" that comes from the uniqueness of each project.

Here are some more tips for work breakdown from the Project Connections site offerings:


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