How do you work out what benefits your project or program will deliver? In most cases project teams hold a brainstorming session and try to come up with ways that the deliverables will benefit the organization. You may be able to look back at the original project business case to try to establish why the project was initiated in the first place, and take guidance from that about the benefits you should be expecting to achieve.
There is another way to uncover your project benefits, though. It’s the benefits breakdown structure.
Benefits Breakdown Structures Explained
“Although it is similar to a work breakdown structure, it uses different development rules,” writes Michel Thiry in his book, Program Management. Just as work breakdown structure (WBS) deconstructs all the related tasks on a project, a benefits breakdown structure (BBS) models the benefits the stakeholders expect to see.
As with any other breakdown structure, you start at the top, creating a hierarchy of benefits. Stakeholders expect all kinds of things, and some of them may not be instantly recognizable as benefits. Start with the strategic objectives of the project or program. These form the top level of your BBS.
Don’t try to put too many things on the top level of your BBS. Focus on the minimal number of overarching objectives and link all the other benefits to these. Every benefit at a higher level is linked to one that comes after it. If you are having difficulty identifying the benefits that derive from strategic objectives, Thiry recommends the ‘how-why’ approach.
Using The ‘How-Why’ Approach
To get from one level of benefit to the next level down, ask how the strategic objective will be achieved. For example, if your project’s objective is ultimately to increase market share, ask, “How do we increase market share?” One of the answers could be by gaining more customers, so one of the next level down benefits would be that the project will help the company gain more customers.
The ‘why’ part of this approach is used in the opposite direction when you want to check your logic back up the hierarchy. “Why do we want more customers?” to which the answer would be to help increase market share.
‘Why’ questions take you towards more generic responses that appear higher up the BBS hierarchy, and ‘how’ questions take down the BBS to more specific benefits.
Creating The Hierarchy
You can produce a BBS hierarchy in any form that works for your team and a recommendation would be to use the same format as you use to produce the project’s WBS. If you like, try to link the activities on the BBS to the relevant tasks on the WBS or on the project plan. Use your enterprise project management tool to help and don’t expect there to be a one-to-one mapping as many benefits derive from more than one project deliverable or task.
Essentially, you are trying to create a hierarchy that takes you from the bigger picture to benefits, to the tangible actions that the project can actually deliver which give defined outcomes. These actions should be realistic improvements that link to the higher levels of the hierarchy and that make sense to the project overall.
You can check if the lower levels of your BBS provide a realistic picture of the project benefits by adding them up – theoretically, at least, if your benefit discussion hasn’t yet got to the point of quantifying benefits with values. Will all the lower level benefits identified on the BBS actually deliver the strategic objectives identified at the top?
You will also want to check that the order you have identified is correct. Verify the sequence of ‘how’ questions down the hierarchy to check that you haven’t missed anything out or added in a benefit without the associated links to other items on the BBS.
Sometimes you’ll need a third party to double-check this for you, as by the time you have got this far, you can be too close to the work to be able to make that assessment clearly. Ask your PMO, another project manager, or a trusted third party to review your BBS and check it for common sense!
It can be time consuming to document benefits in this way but it does provide a really clear summary of what the project can achieve. Because a BBS is a graphical representation of benefits, it is also easy for the project sponsor and other key stakeholders to understand. If you are having trouble identifying benefits through the ‘traditional’ route, give producing a BBS a try. Showing this information in a different way could be all that you need to make everyone on the team understand why you are doing the project in the first place.
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