Breaking Down Work Breakdown Structure

Breaking Down Work Breakdown Structure

July 28, 2020
Written by

Madison Klein

Published on

July 28, 2020

In the 1950s, the U.S. Department of Defense developed Work Breakdown Structure for the Polaris Missile Program.1  The Polaris missile was to be the Navy’s first submarine-launched ballistic missile, engineered to be deployed from sea and carry hundreds of kilotons over distances up to 2,800 miles.2 While engineers and management leaders such as Frederick Winslow Taylor and Henry Gantt had developed clever systems for managing projects several decades earlier, Gantt charts and other existing frameworks simply weren’t enough to coordinate such a large, intricate initiative with so many unknown elements and interdependent workstreams.

Work Breakdown Structure was thus designed as a methodology to help large organizations focus execution efforts on desired outcomes and accelerate execution. Its tenets include taking an outcomes- or deliverables-based approach to work, systematically breaking work down into discrete units or elements, and ensuring that those work elements are comprehensive, mutually exclusive, and clearly assigned.

Decades since it first helped government agencies get massive innovation projects off the ground, Work Breakdown Structure has become widely used by enterprise PMOs, strategy realization offices, transformation offices, integration management offices, and other functions within large organizations charged with orchestrating interconnected activities across portfolios of work. These enterprise leaders are essential to ensure that the methodology is properly adopted across the organization. However, even seasoned strategy, transformation, and portfolio leaders with strong implementation programs struggle when they do not have the right technology to support their activities.

As the pandemic and mounting global competition pressure large organizations to move faster and execute more efficiently, and as adapting strategy to rapidly changing market conditions increasingly defines corporate survival, complex and interconnected workstreams must now be broken down and orchestrated across digital workplaces and with unprecedented resource constraints. Visibility across remote workforces, access to the right capabilities, and tighter alignment between objectives, work, and resources are therefore essential for execution.

1Wisconsin School of Business,”Why Work Breakdown Structures Matter,” June 3, 2018. <>. Accessed July 27, 2020. 

2Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Polaris missile” <>. Accessed July 27, 2020.


Creating a Blueprint with Business Objectives, Work, and Resources

According to survey data from 451 Research (part of S&P Global Market Intelligence), “aligning priorities across the organization” and “ensuring plans are actionable” are the two biggest challenges that organizations face in executing their strategies. This need for greater alignment between strategic objectives and work execution is precisely why many organizations have created enterprise PMOs, transformation management offices, and similar centralized groups responsible for prioritization and orchestration.

Yet, even after these groups have aligned with relevant business leaders and set strategic priorities, they lack the internal visibility required to effectively plan and execute. They need visibility not only into what they are trying to achieve, but also into the potential bodies of work that could help them to get there. To complicate further, they must analyze how their resources map to that potential work.

Ultimately, in order to optimize how you will arrive at your desired business outcomes, you need visibility into how your objectives, work, and workforce come together.

The Catalant Platform enables business leaders to design workstreams to achieve their strategic objectives. This starts with defining, breaking down, and organizing work to identify the capabilities needed to execute. We used work breakdown and project management best practices to design our software, and our work with enterprise customers — including more than 30% of the Fortune 100 — has informed the way we enable organizations to organize the work and resource data they need to effectively break work down and execute.

Over time, this data also enables our software to make smart recommendations about the capabilities needed to execute work and the people most likely to have those capabilities.

Missed the LiveCast?

Watch the full recording of the 451 Research Livecast, and download a recent analyst report about Catalant.

Accelerating Execution with Dynamic Resource Deployment

“Gathering resources to execute plans” is another major challenge to strategy execution, according to 451 Research survey data.3  This is likewise borne out in Gartner’s 2019 “Strategy Agenda Poll,” in which 70% of respondents expressed low confidence in their ability to translate strategy into action while 92% cited resource allocation as a significant barrier to effective strategy.4

Most large companies work in silos, aimed at enabling smaller parts of what they need to do while missing the bigger picture. We believe this is why Gartner’s Hype Cycle for the Digital Workplace classifies Internal Talent Marketplaces as “Benefit Rating: Transformational”. In this report, which cites Catalant as a sample vendor in this category, Helen Poitevin writes:

Large enterprises looking to push innovation to the edges may be encumbered by heavy management and control structures. Internal talent marketplaces have the potential to change that. They establish trust through feedback mechanisms. They allow for worker-led innovation and contribute to workers fully taking control of their own careers. They mean much better tracking of skills, competencies, knowledge and interest of individual workers. This, in turn, will allow enterprises to have a much better view into their workforce and improve workforce planning. They will enable tomorrow’s more lean, agile and adaptive organizations.5

The Catalant Platform provides business leaders with a clear view of the organization’s most important work and of the knowledge, skills, experiences, and capacity of the workforce. This enables organizations to dynamically deploy the right people to the right work at the right time.

Better visibility into how the skills and experiences of the workforce align with the needs of the business also allows business leaders to recognize where they have organizational capability gaps. To bridge knowledge, skill, or capacity gaps and keep strategic initiatives on track, Catalant’s Expert Marketplace gives business leaders flexible access to nearly 70,000 elite independent consultants and more than 1,000 firms.

3451 Research, “Voice of the Enterprise: Workforce Productivity & Collaboration, Work Execution Goals & Challenges,” 2020.

4Gartner, “Strategy Agenda Poll,” 2019.

5Gartner, “Hype Cycle for the Digital Workplace,” 2019.

Case Study: Transformation of a Fortune 100 Financial Services Company

A multinational financial services company recognized the need to transform its operations to ensure that work happening across the organization was in line with its strategic objectives. Company leaders partnered with Catalant to help them orchestrate their transformation workstreams and more efficiently allocate internal resources.

Ensuring that employees were engaged, productive, and driving strategy forward required a nuanced understanding of the skills and experiences within the workforce. Catalant’s platform gave business leaders a much more granular view into the capabilities and aspirations of individual employees, which allowed for more efficient resource allocation. Increased access to stretch opportunities and a better understanding of how individuals contribute to strategy has also helped the business to advance a culture of learning, ownership, and accountability.

Whether driving transformation workstreams forward in periods of less volatility or having to pivot strategy in response to rapidly changing market conditions, the organization knows that its resilience is predicated upon its ability to navigate constant transformation and build strategy execution as a well-honed internal capability.

Getting from Strategy to Execution calls for a centralized SaaS platform.

Through years of developing Catalant’s SaaS platform and Expert Marketplace with our enterprise customers, we’ve learned that uniting the right people, processes, and technology is essential for effectively executing strategy.

Catalant’s SaaS platform helps organizations orchestrate complex initiatives by breaking down work and creating alignment between business objectives, work, and the workforce.