I was rubbish at the Rubik’s Cube.

It’s probably best if I get that admission out of the way now in case it offends you, (though if you’re the sort of person that is outraged by this to the extent that you leave this posting, then, frankly, I’m not that bothered).

I could just about manage to get one side done, never succumbing to temptation of the well used cheat of stripping off the little squares and sticking them back on as if you’ve just taken the Cube out of the box for the first time.   My lack of skill in this department didn’t stop me getting girls or hanging out with the cool crowd. No, there were lots of other factors that accounted for that which I won’t bore you with here.

Anyhow, since my teen years, I’ve not given any thought to the Cube, though the occasional appearance on those multi-hour “I love ‘76” or “100 greatest toys” type TV marathons still manages to stir a nagging feeling of failure deep in my stomach.

So “why”, you may say, “devote my time to write about it now?”  To which I’d answer, “why are you talking to your computer?” and encourage you to go and join the Rubik’s extremists that have already left.

Well, the more I’m involved in planning and managing Programmes of work, the more it seems to me that these Programmes represent a Rubik’s Cube and a Work Breakdown Structure  (WBS) is akin to the different colours.

No one would argue that putting together a WBS before starting a Programme is a really useful (if not essential) way to identify what needs to be done, and the resources to do it.  At the end of the process we have a shiny new Programme plan and resource schedule, similar to a Rubik’s Cube that has just been freed from it’s cellophane.


And that’s when the trouble starts…….

In the same way an excited youngster starts first gets his hands on the Cube and starts to mess it up (by now I’m sure there’s a technical term for this process used by cubists), the Programme mobilises and soon sponsors, stakeholders and numerous other people are hungry for an alternate view of the Programme that doesn’t necessarily fit with the initial WBS.

Let’s think of a simple practical example.

We could have a top level Programme WBS that consists of People, Process and Technology that are analogous to the colours of the Cube, and each of the products or milestones  can be compared to the individual squares (that some unnamed people (David Smith) took off and re-applied to fool people into thinking they had finished it to try to impress girls – I’m not bitter).

Everything’s fine until someone wants to see a specific plan that cuts across all these areas to show the components of a specific release that consists of deliverables from the People, Process and Technology areas.   Then a functional stakeholder decides to join in and wants to see their cut, like “show me all the Finance related stuff”.   Suddenly, to these people, the Programme Plan becomes a scrambled Rubik’s Cube of activities and deliverables bearing little resemblance to the sequence of tasks they want to see.

The temptation at this point is to either:

1)   constantly rework the Programme plan to fit an alternative WBS

2)   have several versions that provide the different views

3)   sit quietly in dark room

4)   claim to be colour blind and argue vehemently the Cube has been finished

(3 and 4 will probably mean you’ll never work again by the way but are included for completeness).

In reality, for MS Project users, there is an answer that with a bit of forethought is surprisingly simple to set up and implement.

Not everyone will know about the presence of custom MS Project Outline Codes, and if someone stumbled across these in the “Customise Fields” area of the software it’s likely they  (often justifiably) decided they had better things in which to invest their time.

In essence, this feature allows you to create an alternative WBS, into which you can place tasks.  There are up to 10 codes you could use if you needed them, giving you 10 alternative WBS’s. In the way a string theory physicist has multiple dimensions (they do apparently), you can have lots of versions of your plan, though to want to use this many codes in MS Project you’d need to be a rocket scientist.

Then, setting up MS Project Groups to group tasks by your custom Outline Codes and then using these in some Views, you can swivel the project plan to give a radical new perspective on your plan for different audiences. – safe in the knowledge that you can revert back to the original WBS that you invested so much time in, at the press of a button.

I’ve used it many times, quickly overlaying new structures over a pre-existing plan to provide alternative perspectives.  This has often provided an invaluable insight into end to end plans, identifying the real critical path for delivery that was previously hidden in a WBS that didn’t support that view.

It’s a bit like having a reset button on your Rubik’s Cube that only you knew about – how cool would that have been when you were a kid?

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