Between proposals, scope statements, and project plans, you might feel like you don’t need another document to create before you kick off a project.
But the more clarity you can provide up front, the more likely it is that your project will be on time and within budget—and avoid being among the 25% of technology projects that fail outright, not to mention the 50% that need massive reworking by the time they’re finished.
See our post "How to Plan a Project" for more information on how to lay the foundation for a successful project.
One way to help avoid these fates is to translate your planning into an actionable list of tasks, which is where a work breakdown structure (WBS) comes in.
Creating a WBS is where planning and doing meet: you and your team build out a flowchart that breaks all of the deliverables down into the tasks that need to be done to complete them. It is an important visualization of the tasks that need to be completed and will ensure you’re accounting for every task as you plan your project out.
A WBS should follow the 100% rule developed by Gregory T. Haugan: it should include 100% of the work that has to be done to complete the deliverables, and it should not include any work that is not defined in the scope of the project. Be specific, be thorough, and don’t be afraid of being too detailed.
Before you build your first WBS, it’s important to understand the principles involved, so you can base your decisions on the specific needs of your project rather than arbitrary markers such as a predetermined number of project levels or tasks.
Get Familiar with the Components of a WBS
A WBS has three major components:
- Deliverables: Starting at the top, these are the end products that make up the highest level of the WBS. As you get further into your WBS, you’ll break them down into smaller pieces that you can assign to individual team members.
- Work components or pieces: These make up the middle layers of your WBS, and they’ll usually be groupings of similar or related tasks. You’re still not at the individual task level yet, but you’ll understand better the types of tasks that logically go together.
- Individual tasks: Also called “work packages,” these make up the bottom and most detailed level of your WBS. A good way to know that you have reached this level is when you have begun listing out tasks that can be assigned to and completed by one person. Each work package should be unique; there shouldn’t be one work package repeated in multiple places.
Depending on the size and scope of your project, your WBS might have three levels, or it might have ten. As we said before, don’t focus on having a certain number of levels or tasks in your finished WBS.
Just keep going until you’ve broken down all the tasks that will require groups of people to complete or need to be done in phases into their smallest component parts. You’ll know you’re there when you can’t divide a deliverable down further into sub-deliverables. Each work package will have a single project outcome.
Start with the Deliverables
A thorough list of deliverables is the most important thing you need before starting work on your WBS.
Depending on the project, there might be stakeholders from different teams and departments or even different companies. It’s important that they have all signed off on the list of deliverables and that everyone is in agreement. Your deliverables should be clearly laid out in your project scope, which we’ve covered before.
If there is any ambiguity or confusion about the project deliverables, resources, or constraints, you should clear them up before you dive into your WBS. You’ll save a lot of time in revisions and potential conflict down the road.
Make it a Group Effort
The process of building the WBS is almost as important as the final product, and involving the entire team invites creativity and collaboration. All team members who will work on the project should be involved, especially if they have unique skill sets or knowledge. This way, you can avoid missing any crucial tasks or underestimating how much time they will need.
The project manager should also offer suggestions or point out problem areas, but remember that your team should do most of the work, because they will be ultimately responsible for completing these tasks. If the project manager or team lead makes these decisions, you are missing out on an opportunity to get your team’s buy in and input.
Choose Your Own WBS Adventure
There are two ways to build a WBS: with software or with sticky notes and a whiteboard. Both methods have benefits and drawbacks, so choose the method that works best for your team.
Building the WBS in-person is a great approach for a few reasons. First, getting the entire team together facilitates a lot of discussion and problem solving. And if your team works mostly on computers, switching to something physical, like notecards and a whiteboard, breaks up the monotony and can encourage everyone to think differently.
This method is also lower-stakes than using software, and it’s quicker and easier to make changes. If a task needs to be moved or deleted, you simply grab the notecard and put it in the right place.
The drawback to doing this in-person is that it can take longer, and if your team includes remote employees or people who are exceptionally busy, it can be difficult to get everyone in the room at the same time.
Using collaborative software is a great solution for teams who don’t work in the same location or can’t get together for long meetings.
Depending on what software you’re using, it can also do things like estimate the time each task will take or how much it will cost, which can be helpful when managing other components of your project, like your budget or team members’ bandwidth.
Using a combination of these two methods can give you the best of both worlds: a planning meeting with your team in-person to work out the details and then translating the structure you’ve built to an electronic format. How you make this work depends on the size, structure, and preference of your team.
Follow This 5-Step Process
No matter the size or scope of your WBS, you will use the same basic process when you build one.
1. List Out Each Deliverable
Make sure to include every deliverable in your final list, which should be reviewed and approved by all the stakeholders.
2. Break Each Deliverable Out into Work Components
Depending on the size and scope of your project, you might have more than one level of work components. A good way to start dividing them is by task type or by person.
For example, you might have a deliverable that involves work by graphic designers, copywriters, and a social media manager. You can break the overall deliverable out into a design component, a written content work component, and a social media optimization component.
You can also break these work components down even further if necessary. If you have work being done by two designers with different specialties or marketing experts from two different companies, you can create a work component for those different groups.
There’s no requirement or limit to how many work components you can have; whatever makes sense for your team is the right answer.
3. Break Each Component into Individual Work Packages
The final level in your WBS will be a list of individual tasks that one person can complete. It’s important that this level is detailed and specific. Think of each work package as a mini project that requires its own budget, resources, schedule, and milestones.
4. Identify Any Tasks that Are Dependent on Other Tasks
Before you move forward with assigning or completing tasks, take some time to look at each task and note if it needs to be completed before certain tasks or if it’s dependent on other tasks being finished first. This will help you use your time effectively and avoid roadblocks.
5. Prioritize Based on What Needs to be Completed First
The final step is prioritizing everything and deciding what needs to be completed first. You can prioritize by component or by individual work package, whichever makes sense for your team and the specific project.
It’s a good idea to do this while you’re building your WBS because your discussion and decisions are fresh in your mind. Doing them at the same time will make project planning easier as you move forward.
Proceed with Confidence
Creating a WBS is undoubtedly a time-consuming process. You have to get into the nitty-gritty of each task and its dependencies, you have to involve the whole team, and you have to think through every aspect of your project, top to bottom.
But once you’ve finished, you’ll find that both the final WBS document and the creation process itself are invaluable to your team. You’ll be able to kick off your project with confidence, knowing you’ve taken everything that has to be done into account—and given yourself an excellent chance of ultimate success.
See "Project Management: How to Develop a Strategic Plan" to learn more about starting a project the right way.
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