Major Initiatives, Agile Projects: How Breaking Down Work Enables Business Agility

Steven Duque

For today’s highly matrixed global enterprises, innovation is both critical and increasingly complicated. Strategic innovation initiatives often require a multitude of stakeholders, rest on critical interdependencies, and reflect competing internal priorities.

Based on Catalant’s experience helping over 30% of the Fortune 100 transition to an agile operating model, this piece explores how breaking down and prioritizing mission critical work enables business agility.

Born From Cold War-Era Innovation

The Cold War period conceived many of the American innovations we know today. The rockets that boosted humans to the moon, nuclear-powered submarines with the ability to spend months submerged, and the Internet that connects us are all products of a time in which government agencies and private corporations tackled the most ambitious, large-scale innovation projects in human history.


Behind the scenes, the Cold War-era produced a far less visible, but equally crucial body of knowledge: advanced management frameworks to drive complicated, interdisciplinary innovation efforts forward quickly.

The Work Breakdown Structure (WBS), one of the most enduring and widely used of these frameworks, was developed during the 1950s by the U.S. Department of Defense and NASA to manage the design and construction of a new generation of missiles and spacecraft. The Project Management Institute defines the WBS as a “hierarchical decomposition of the total scope of work to be carried out by [a] project team to accomplish the project objectives and create the required deliverables.” While the WBS was designed to manage complicated projects, its underlying philosophy remains simple: breaking work into smaller, discrete units enables faster, higher quality execution.

[A Work Breakdown Structure is a] hierarchical decomposition of the total scope of work to be carried out by [a] project team to accomplish the project objectives and create the required deliverables.”

Source: Creating Effective Work Breakdown Structures, Project Management Institute

Breaking Down to Speed Up

In the decades since it helped first government agencies get massive innovation projects off the ground, the Work Breakdown Structure has become a tool for enterprise project management specialists leading everything from decades-long infrastructure projects to multi-layered IT implementations. Defined by industry texts like the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), the responsibility for systematically breaking down large strategic initiatives into discrete, time-bound projects and the skills required to complete them has traditionally rested on specialized project managers and PMOs. But as markets grow more volatile and the ability to work with agility and rapidly innovate increasingly define corporate survival, breaking down work to speed execution has become critical for business owners of all types.

Market data reveals that 52% of S&P 500 companies have disappeared in the past 15 years, while the average tenure of companies in the S&P 500 is projected to drop from 33 years in 1965 to just 14 by 2026. Decades of research identify consistent innovation as the leading driver of long-term growth at the firm level, yet experts suggest that corporate innovation may be slowing as breakthrough projects become more expensive, labor-intensive, and uncertain than ever before. Leading economists write that breakthrough innovations from academic labs and corporate R&D teams alike are increasingly difficult to find, while 60% of companies say that it takes a year or longer to launch new products.

Average S&P 500 tenure drop from 33 years in 1965 to 14 by 2026

Source: Corporate Longevity: Turbulence
Ahead for Large Organizations
, Innosight

52% of S&P 500 companies have disappeared in past 15 years
60% of companies say it takes one year or longer to launch new products

At the same time, the skills required to complete mission critical innovation work within enterprises, ranging from data science to new forms of digital marketing, have shifted rapidly and are increasingly scarce in today’s tight labor market. Eighty percent of CEOs report concern over the availability of key skills, while 84% of executives believe that the best people, ideas, and capabilities exist outside the walls of their company.

80% of CEOs report concern over the availability of key skills
84% of executives believe that the best people, ideas, and capabilities exist outside the walls of their company

These trends concerning market volatility, innovation, and available skills highlight the need for enterprises to work with greater agility and transition to agile operating models. How should companies and business owners approach world in which innovation initiatives are both critical to future growth and increasingly complicated? We believe that the ability to break down large initiatives into distinct workstreams and discrete, time-bound projects is not just a tool for project managers, it is absolutely imperative for business agility.

From Initiatives to Component Projects

Advocates of the WBS and other methods of decomposing work clearly believe that breaking larger, complicated units of work down into smaller, discrete units — namely, time-constrained, mission-based projects that map back to broader strategies and initiatives — leads to better results, but how does this process specifically enable greater business agility?

Breaking down and prioritizing work leads to higher quality, faster execution by enabling:

More granular identification — and allocation — of the skills and expertise needed to get work done

The rise of new people analytics tools and capabilities reflects the emphasis enterprises increasingly place on understanding the skills and experience available within their talent pools. Effectively leveraging this talent to accelerate mission critical work, however, requires an equally detailed breakdown of the skills required to complete specific projects.

Disaggregation of hard-to-fill full-time roles into required skills and capabilities

Just as major strategic initiatives typically consist of multiple component workstreams and discrete projects, full-time roles often represent a bundle of specific skills and capabilities. In a world in which hiring for new skills and competencies is increasingly difficult, breaking work down into individual projects and the skills required to complete them allows business leaders to more effectively match the right people to the right work. According to McKinsey, “the trend to disaggregate jobs will pick up speed as skill shortages take hold… In such cases, breaking jobs down into more specialized tasks will not only help companies economize on scarce talent but also make it possible to perform those tasks more efficiently and effectively.”

Clear delineation of the steps required for team members to achieve goals and objectives, and greater visibility and accountability across work that needs to be done

Research is clear: human beings are more productive when guided by structured, ordered lists of discrete tasks. The same is true for teams, especially those engaged in complicated, cross-functional transformation and innovation-focused work. Breaking large initiatives down into discrete projects and component tasks forms the basis for many of the planning, accountability, and scoring systems used to effectively manage projects in areas ranging from digital transformation to software development.

Better mitigation of risk and faster ability to pivot as new data emerge that impact work

Breaking a large goal or initiative into component parts reduces the risk presented by single points of failure or the emergence of unexpected bottlenecks. The U.S. Navy’s “distributed lethality” strategy for example, reflects this thinking by moving offensive and defensive firepower from central ships like aircraft carriers to smaller vessels and diverse unit types. This reduces the impact of treats to large capital ships, and allows a battlegroup to adapt quickly to emerging missions and intelligence.

Better management of performance across well-defined work with clear deliverables, along with better time tracking and cost calculation

Any business leader responsible for reviewing employees knows that effective performance measurement requires clear goals and well-defined KPIs. Measuring employees based on progress against complicated, cross-functional initiatives proves difficult unless the work is clearly broken down into discrete parts. Measuring employee performance on small, time-bound projects allows business owners to more effectively manage an agile workforce.

For today’s business leaders, the teams that sent astronauts to the moon and developed the computers powering our digital lives seem like echoes of a distant past. In reality, however, these towering feats of engineering and teamwork left behind a deep intellectual legacy for modern day enterprise innovators.

The ability to break down and prioritize work remains imperative to business agility and leaders transitioning their organizations to an agile operating model. If NASA engineers over five decades ago broke down massive technical and innovation challenges into clear workstreams and mission-driven projects to get rockets off the ground, shouldn’t your organization?

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