How do you eat an elephant? The most common answer is: One bite at a time. A concept tree will help you break the “elephant” of a project you have been given into smaller pieces that are much easier to digest. A concept tree simply shows the relationship between things or ideas and will help you visually break down a large task at hand into a more manageable form. Concept trees can be used in a variety of ways. Students might use them to study for major tests, scientists might use them in their research, a Lean Six Sigma guru might use them in the brainstorming process, and Project Managers can use this tool to clarify the required tasks. I think it would be useful in developing the initial Work Breakdown Structure for a program or project.
A Project Manager is often assigned a project with little or no direction on how the project is to be completed. They are given a list of requirements, perhaps some limitations such as funding, schedule, or environmental constraints. Beyond these boundaries, it is up to the Project Manager to successfully accomplish the project. The concept tree will not only break the project down, but it will also help the PM see various ways to accomplish a task and will allow a given idea to be extrapolated out to allow for realization of what taking that path will really mean for the project.
In the image above, I have made a very simple concept tree for building a garden. The concepts that have been fully explored are colored in green. The rest are incomplete in the name of space. You can easily get the idea though. Perhaps at the beginning of a project, the team would go into a conference room and do this exercise on a large white board. Imagine for a large communication system, you would have bubbles for logistics, software, hardware, documentation, testing, regulations, system engineering, training, etc. Each one of those bubbles when extrapolated out could lead to very detailed concept trees of their own. Eventually, the trees will get to a level the program manager will be comfortable with, and resources can be assigned to the smaller tasks that will roll up much like a WBS. The WBS can be created from this chart which will begin to provide a more detailed funding estimate and schedule for the project, as well as the resources you will need to get going.
Here at “Save the Monkey in the Middle”, we are big believers in visual exercises when taking care of business. A WBS is a very linear product, but many people think more visually than a WBS allows. Give this a try as you begin your next large task and let us know how it goes!