By Carl Pritchard, PMP, PMI-RMP

May 2022

When you read the title, you probably wracked your brain for the right answer.  People?  Important, but definitely not simple.  The objective?  Arguably important, but again, not always simple.  What’s the simplest piece?

The manageable chunk.

Whether you call it a work package or a user story, the manageable chunk is the critical element of project management that drives everything from employee satisfaction to objective achievement.  It’s the cornerstone of why project management practice makes sense. 

You might see each one of these photos as representative of a manageable chunk.  You’d be right.  But you’d also be missing all of the critical elements of the ideation process.  What’s shown here are the pieces that others can witness.  What’s shown here are the elements that make your peers and your boss say, Job well done!  What’s missing is a lot of really boring activity.  Before you get to this sequence, you have to come up with a master plan on how you’re going to get a traceable image on the shed.  You have to ensure that you have the other stakeholders (i.e., the neighbors) in agreement that it’s a good idea.  (By the way, when I told them my plan, their response was “How Cool!!”).  You have to determine paint type and color.  You need to wipe down two years of dirt and grime from the shed. 

A lot of those elements get overlooked as key components of the work.  They’re not seen as valuable.  They’re not exciting.  No one is jazzed about tracing the outline of a Mail Pouch sign with a Sharpie® marker at twilight. 

And on the near-completion side, there’s equally dull labor ahead.  The paint cans must be stored.  The paper towels and spent masking tape must find their way to the trash.  The ladders need to be stowed, and the promised Facebook® and LinkedIn posts must be posted.  It’s not exciting, but it needs to be done. 

How does it all get done?  How do you retain team motivation during the less exciting aspects of any project endeavor?  The manageable chunk. 

User Stories versus Work Packages

If you are a classic project manager (read: Waterfall), then the work package is your desired element of work.  It’s a pre-ordained size that will accomplish a specific goal. 

If you are an Agilist, then you’re working with manageable chunks called user stories.  They can come in a host of different sizes, and some are more daunting than others.  In order to size them out, they’re given specific numbers of story points, t-shirt sizes, or points from another scoring system.  A 1-pointer might be as simple as painting inside the already-taped-off “MAIL”.  A 10-pointer might be as complex as tracing the entire sign (which had to be done in a single event), ensuring that it was consistent with the original photograph.  Each one has value, but the scoring system affords you the ability to acknowledge when someone is putting in more effort than others.

In waterfall project management, the major accomplishment is the completion of a work package.  In Agile, it’s the completion of a user story or a pre-ordained set of story points. 

Small Victories

Earlier in my career, I proposed a book to a number of publishers.  The title was going to be Yellow Stickie Project Management.  (Yes, I had checked with the Post-It® people, who didn’t want to endorse the idea, so that was my workaround).  Whether building a Work Breakdown Structure from the work package or building a product backlog from the user stories, the yellow stickie is a simple display tool for the work remaining to get done (or with a slash from a magic marker, for the work that is done). 

A wall of yellow stickies represents a challenge.  Seeing that wall grow smaller and smaller is a reward.  Trying to get others to work with you?  Take the Agile approach and have them identify what they can get done in a prescribed period of time.  Oddly enough, there are few things more satisfying in life than marking “done” on a piece of work (or crumpling up a Post-It®). 

The work packages and user stories afford us the opportunity to see progress where it can and cannot be seen by others.  For the early parts of a project, where momentum is limited, that progress lets everyone know the ball is rolling.  For the latter parts of the project, where fatigue can set in, it clarifies that there is still progress to be made (and being made). From team-building to work in progress to invisible work, the work package buys us value.  The user story produces a value-add element that can be witnessed through the elimination of that story.  And as the stories and packages are complete, our efforts become a snowball from an old Looney Tunes® cartoon.  They start with small accomplishment and accrete more accomplishment until they are an unstoppable force.  Would that we could say the same for our projects.  And we can…in manageable chunks.