Work Breakdown Structure: among the least sexy of terms. As you build and maintain a culture in your project management shop, you avoid preaching to your respected PMPs about skills as basic as the WBS. That's cool.

But poorly executed WBSs aren't worth the name; they don't reliably deliver the value intended. And because WBS creation is rightly viewed as a remedial skill, project failure caused by WBS errors or oversight are particularly large blemishes for a PM professional. Maybe it's time to reconsider the WBS, and find ways to bake it into your PM culture.

Under-appreciated tools are readily available that help the WBS deliver on its promise -- a comprehensive view of required deliveries, clear decomposition of the whole into parts, and a reliable structure from which to hang the development and management activities required for success. These tools integrate with Microsoft Project to not only build a WBS, but to build a schedule, identify a critical path, and report on progress and schedule, all from a graphical-interface WBS. And a graphical WBS can often be more readily sold to non-technical stakeholders than a .ppm Gantt chart.

WBS Chart Pro

WBS Chart Pro by Critical Tools allows the user to sketch a project plan on the screen in WBS form, rearrange the levels and objects in the WBS, and include resource and schedule information at the work package level. The application rolls the schedule and resource data up to each higher level of the chart.

Plans created in WBS Chart Pro can be transferred directly to Microsoft Project, and you can transfer a project plan from Project into WBS Chart Pro to validate that its structure is based on WBS principles. You can even alter it in Chart Pro and send it back to Project, updated.

The WBS Chart Pro folks tout that Chart Pro is a stand alone product: that while it integrates with Project (and it does so nicely), you have the choice to run it as a stand alone product. More on that in a moment

WBS Modeler

Like WBS Chart Pro, WBS Modeler can be used to edit an existing project plan or to create a new project plan. Modeler works in Microsoft Office Visio 2007 Professional, and integrates with Microsoft Office Project.

While Modeler allows much of the same project element management as Chart Pro, Modeler's update process (the integration with MS Project) is limited to deleting, renaming or adding elements. You cannot simply drag an element from one area to another in Visio and carry that update into Project. Other tools do provide that level of back-and-forth integration.

The limited integration between Modeler and Project, though, will only impact a small number of power users. Despite the power of these WBS tools for ongoing reporting and management, most users will abandon the WBS tool after the planning phase, or else use it only for limited reporting. If you reach the next level, and begin to pine for seamless integration with Project, it won't hurt you too much to move to a more powerful WBS tool at that time.

WBS Director

WBS Director is unique in this list, as it is an add-in to Project itself. Makes the claim of seamless integration pale by comparison. Our friends at Chart Pro would argue that integration is integration, no matter how you achieve it, and that Director going native inside of Project is a weakness: it requires Project and cannot stand alone. I leave that argument for potential users to settle for themselves.

WBS Director is by Quantum PM. They focus on ease of use and -- again -- seamless integration. That argument falls flat in the face of the other easy to use, integrated WBS tools. But Director does hold out the promise of greater adoption by your users. An add-in that appears inside Project, already open and ready to use on the desktop, is likely to enjoy a greater adoption rate. And adoption of any of the these tools is likely to yield project value.

A great deal of fun is had in many project management shops poking fun at what are often called PMI-isms. But an effective PM culture insists upon certain minimums. And production of a high-quality WBS should be among those minimums. If we look amongst ourselves we will find it: the small project with no WBS, the WBS based on tasks instead of deliverables, or the WBS whose structure seems to reflect schedule, team or org structure, rather than simply starting with a comprehensive view of deliverables.

There is great value to be had in many shops merely by trialing one or more of these tools, and holding live review sessions to hear what they did well or poorly. "They" meant the tools, just then, not your team. But -- without ever having bought anything, or said a single word that sounded like training -- you may find your team learned something else merely through the trial and discussion. The next step is up to you.