The foundation to developing a project schedule is a list of the activities required to complete the project. If you have not identified the work that needs to be done, there is no point in trying to put together a schedule. Activity definition is the process of breaking down the deliverables and subdeliverables in the work breakdown structure (WBS) that we discussed in Chapter 3. Although the industry standards set by A Guide to the PMBOK defines breaking down work packages into activities as a separate process, in reality activity definition is typically not a stand-alone process. It is part of the iterative process of decomposing the WBS down to a manageable level. Depending on how detailed your WBS is, this step may already be completed.
Many guidelines are available on how far down you should break an activity, and none of them are right for every situation. We’re sure you have all seen a project manager with a schedule of detailed tasks so large it looks like you’d have to wheel it around on a cart. Breaking down the work required to complete a project to the level of 15-minute tasks does not guarantee project success. In fact, the outcome is usually quite the opposite. Either the project manager spends all day just trying to keep the schedule current, rather than look at the big picture, or the schedule tracking effort is abandoned and the schedule binder starts collecting dust on a shelf.
The key to activity definition is to identify all of the tasks required to produce the deliverable and to confirm that these tasks are small enough to do time and cost estimates. This needs to be balanced with keeping activities at a high enough level that they can be managed effectively. You do not want to end up trying to keep track of each team member’s “To Do” list.
If you only get a status update from project team members on a weekly basis, it does not make sense to track tasks that are only a couple of hours or days. Unless your overall project is on a very short timeline, you should define activities that will take one to three weeks to complete. If you have a very critical short task, you may want to make an exception, but you need to do a special follow-up on the status.
Once you have all of your activities defined, you are now ready to start putting them into the sequence in which they will be completed.