What is a product breakdown structure?

by Marlene Lowe,
Partner Relationship Manager

May 3, 2017
Reading Time: 5 minutes

The importance of creating a product breakdown structure for software development process and how it will save you time and money.

We know that it can be challenging to make sense of the following concept when dealing with ideas, so we are going to use the concept of building a fairground to make the concepts tangible. This will be a way to show how you need to identify all the assets needed when creating your product – whether it be a fairground or software.

In our last blog post we gave you a few top tips on what to do once you have started working with your nearshoring partners. In the article we gave you a five-step process on how to “Start with the end in mind and begin at the beginning”. This article is breaking down step 2 for you. If you haven’t read it yet you can find it here.

Have you ever started a project, full of enthusiasm for the future and sure you have the best product or idea out there, dived straight into it and then hit a wall?

"Why did I start this project?"

All of a sudden you don’t know what is happening, you’re overwhelmed, feeling lost, and the big picture is no longer there because you’re bogged down in the detail trying to claw your way back to the surface. Do you remember sitting there, cup of tea steaming beside you, head in your hands thinking “Why did I start this software project?” Don’t worry, we have all been there. What we at Forbytes have found is that there is a two-part technique that allows you to clear the way and make sure you always have a clear line of sight to what you are doing and why.

Breakdown your software product into manageable components

​The technical term for the two parts are a Product Breakdown Structure (PBS) (step 2) and a Build Road Map (step 3), or as I like to call them: the manual to a mystical fairground. As the name suggests, a PBS allows you to breakdown your product/vision/dream into manageable components/parts. Each of the components are decisions/facts/items that need to be completed or created to achieve your end product. Each component can in turn be broken down into sub-components to make your vision even clearer and give you more of an indication as to what is needed in order to achieve your vision.

​Build roadmap

​By breaking down your product into these different components, you’re able to not only visualise what needs to be done, but can start seeing the sequence in which things need to happen. This sequence is the Build Road Map. The PBS identifies what your building blocks are and the Build Road Map shows you in what order they should be put together.

​Break down the larger task

Let’s go back to our example of building a fairground. We all have an idea of what we want to have in a fairground – lots of trees, candy floss stands, hotdog carts, lots of people and the ultimate reason we are there: the rides! The fairground as a whole is our finished product – the goal that we have in mind. What we want to do however is break it down into its manageable component parts. We need to break down the larger task at hand to encompass who needs to do what and when. We want to make sure that the park is bringing in funds as soon as possible and so need to find out what the minimal viable product (MVP) would be to get going.

We start with the end in mind...

amusement park building set box

​and begin with the beginning...

putting together the amusement park building set pieces

Start with laying out what pieces fit with which component

​In this example we are building the Ferris wheel. When seen on the box it looks overwhelming and all the parts come out of the box in a cacophony of sound and messy colours. I’ll admit that when I first opened the box and saw just how many pieces there were, I was flabbergasted and put my head in my hands and thought “Why on earth did I agree to do this?”Then I thought about the product breakdown structure, picked up the manual, and started sorting out what pieces fit with which component and in what order they needed to be built. I started with laying out all the pieces to build the structure of our Ferris wheel, the first edition to our Fairground and the MVP to start bringing money into the park.

amusement park building set pieces

​The Build Road Map has given us an order in which to build the Ferris wheel, with the PBS telling me exactly what parts are needed for what section. Luckily, most of this came in an instruction manual hidden inside the box. Although I had to discern what part went where only using pictures, it still gave me a clear indication of what pieces I needed to build my number signifies the position it has in the PBS and Build Road Map

putting together the amusement park building set parts

​Make sure you are still on track

As we continue to build the product we need to consistently re-evaluate the manual and make sure we are still on track and still have all of our parts (some might have rolled under the sofa which could have had a major impact on the final result). That the big and overwhelming task you began with has actually turned into a manageable project. History and experience is telling you how long it will take you to complete the project. You start realizing how many people are actually needed to complete the different components, and you also know what to expect with the next build.

And at the end we have the finished product, ready to be a fabulous edition, and the first MVP, to our fairground:

amusement park wheel successfully completed

Visualise your product and make it more concrete

By completing a PBS during your planning stage of the project, you are able to find out how many resources, tools, hours in a day you might need in order to create your product. It allows you to visualise your product and make it more concrete – not just an idea that you dive into and lose sight of. It will help you construct a clear and defined path towards achieving your end product.

Ideally you should complete this stage during your planning phase and before any work has begun on your product, or in our case coding. We have on occasion completed this step for a product already in progress – usually in conjunction with being brought onto a problem project.

Read how Forbytes uses ​product breakdown structure with our client-partners.

Find out more about our software enhancements expertise and read success stories of cooperation with our partners.

Photography by David Robinson © 2017.