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Define Activities

Define activities.

The PMBOK time management knowledge area is concerned primarily with the resources, define activities, and scheduling which is derived from the scope baseline. The project manager will create the schedule based on the work that needs to be done within the constraints such as project time milestones and individual availability.

The main performance aspects of any project are time, cost and scope, and these aspects are tightly linked such that a change in one of them will almost certainly impact change in one or more of the others.

Whereas scope management focused on the work needed to be performed on an individual project, time management will concentrate on how and when such work is carried out.

Define Activities – the work breakdown structure consists of a complete list of the project deliverables, and the job now is to define the work activity is required to produce these deliverables. The first activity is called define activities.

Using the WBS mentioned above and the newly created scope baseline, these are decomposed to break down the work into schedule activity level detail in the form of an activity list (define activities) representing all of the schedule activities’ that need to take place in order for the project to be successfully completed.

Define Activities – each work package will be broken down or decomposed into individual work schedule activities, and it is the activity list (define activities) created within this process that is used to develop the remaining time management processes:

  • Sequence activities
  • Estimate activity resources
  • Estimate activity durations
  • Develop schedule
  • Control schedule

The main inputs to this process is the scope baseline consisting of the approved project scope statement, the work breakdown structure, and the work breakdown structure dictionary. In addition the enterprise environmental factors and organisational process assets are used as inputs to the define activities process.

Enterprise environmental factors. In defining the activities, laws and regulations, the amount of risk, and the type of industry for example, will have an effect on the activities’ required.

Organisational process assets. Please make consists of templates for common project documentation, tools that are available, plans from previous similar projects, lessons learned, or policies procedures and guidelines that must be applied.

Activity list.

As the name suggests this is a list of all the activities that must be performed within the project which is why we are doing define activities here, then each activity should tied back to just one work package (although each work package may have several activities within it). Remember that work packages are product or deliverable based to deliver the scope of the project, whereas activities’ focus on the work that needs to be carried out in order to execute such work packages.

Each activity must be complete and accurate as the projects schedule will be developed from it. An activity is typically described using a noun and verb such as ‘create report’.

The activity attributes. This is needed to hold additional information about each activity, and will typically include the individual to carry out the work or the knowledge skills and experience required. It may also include non human aspects such as materials, tools or facilities. For these reasons the activity attributes should be seen as an expansion of the activity list.

Milestone list. This refers to any date or schedule constraints or projected dates based on historical information. The focus here is that these milestones relate to imposed or constrained dates.

There are four tools used within the Define Activities process:


To carry this out, each work package at the bottom of the work breakdown structure is decomposed into schedule activities and this will often be carried out as part of a planning workshop. The value here, is the use of project team functional or operational managers, or customer and user expertise to help accurately identify the activities required.


Rolling wave planning.

The rolling wave planning is a helpful approach in define activities and is a form of progressive elaboration and is based on the assumption that activities required in the near future will be more clearly known and in greater detail, while those further into the future may not be as detailed or easily understood.

A way of seeing this is that the project plan may contain high-level detail of the entire project, whereas a stage or phase plans will drill down to a greater level of detail, but such detail may not be known at the beginning of the project.

To use an analogy, suppose that you are writing a book. You may have an outline structure of the story for the chapters required but not much information of the detailed contained within each chapter. Rolling wave planning is more often used within IT type projects but less so within the construction industry projects as lack of detail within initial plans may cause huge expense later.

Templates. If your organisation has a project office, then they may keep templates from similar previous projects or they may be structural templates available within a particular organisation or industry. The value here is that templates can be used to fast track the identification of all activities’ in the define activities process, normally required for this type of project.

Expert judgement. This could come from a variety of different sources, including the individual who may be responsible for creating the actual products or deliverables, however it may be those with experience such as key members, operational or functional managers, consultants, or subject matter experts. Of particular use here is their knowledge and assistance in decomposing the work packages down into a set of activities.

Define Activities – Outputs

Fairly obviously, the main output in the define activities process is a list of activities!

The activity list should be of sufficient detail to create a realistic and feasible schedule.

The activity list would typically have extra information about each activity such as constraints, assumptions, logical relationships, and so on…

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David spent 25 years as a senior project manager for US multinationals and now develops a wide range of project-related video training products under the Primer brand. In addition, David runs training seminars across the world, and is a prolific writer on the many topics of project management. He currently lives in Spain with his wife Jude.

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