How to Create a Work Breakdown Structure

How to Create a Work Breakdown Structure

Whether delivering a product or service, you and your team need to know what work needs to be done, when, and by whom. A Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is a crucial document that details a project’s major and minor work components, timeline, and resources. 

Put simply, it’s a breakdown of all the work that will go into completing your project. Getting this kind of clarity at the beginning will help you 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.

Why should you create a WBS?

Team benefits. 

  • Ensures you stay within the project scope

  • Visually represents all project work and deliverables

  • Manages work with concrete deliverables

  • Creates measurable outcomes

  • Prevents redundant work or gaps in responsibility

  • Improves visibility and accountability

  • Enhances productivity

Project manager benefits.

  • Creates work visibility to manage deadlines and allocate resources

  • Allows for cost estimating and budgeting

  • Leaves documentation for project assessment and future improvement

  • Allows for easy and accessible updates and progress reports

  • Improves risk management and early troubleshooting 

  • Facilitates scenario building

Organizational benefits.

  • Accurately budget across several projects and departments

  • Identify dependencies

  • Manage complex scheduling needs 

Visualization is key.

While you can create a WBS in outline format, one of the major benefits of this document is giving you a visual hierarchy of work broken down into its smallest components. Not only is every deliverable accounted for and assigned, but easy to see as part of a larger component and entire project. Consider creating your WBS with a table, flow chart, or collaborative software

5 steps to writing your multi-level WBS.

Depending on the size and scope of your project, your WBS might have three levels, or it might have ten. There is no correct number of levels or tasks in your finished WBS. Just keep breaking down work into their smallest component parts. You’ll know you’re there when you can no longer divide a deliverable into sub-deliverables, and when each work package has a single project outcome.

Step 1: List every major deliverable.

Major deliverables are the final products required to complete the project successfully. These deliverables should have already been clearly laid out in your project scope.

For example, the major deliverables of a targeted content campaign might be:

  1. Downloadable collateral

  2. Emails

  3. Web pages

  4. Social media 

  5. Blogs

  6. Newsletters

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.

Finally, be sure to have your list reviewed and approved by all the stakeholders. Depending on the project, there might be stakeholders from different teams, 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. 

Step 2: Break each deliverable into work components.

These are groups of related deliverables needed to comprise a larger, major deliverable. 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 role.

For example:

  • Deliverable: Social Media
    • Work Component: Twitter
    • Work Component: Instagram
    • Work Component: Facebook
    • Work Component: LinkedIn

You can break down work components further if necessary:

  • Work Component: Facebook
    • Sub-Component: Copywriting
    • Sub-Component: Graphic design
    • Sub-Component: Video editing

There’s no requirement or limit to how many work components you can have; whatever makes sense for your team is the right answer.

Step 3: Break each work component into work packages.

The final and most detailed level in your WBS will be a list of individual tasks that one person can complete. Think of each work package as a mini project that requires its own budget, resources, schedule, and milestones.

Each work package should be unique and no work package should be repeated under any Work Component.

  • Deliverable: Social Media
    • Work Component: Instagram
      • Sub-Component: Copywriting
        • Work Package: 3 sponsored posts
        • Work Package: 2 contest posts
        • Work Package: 1 give-away post
        • Work Package: 5 user generated posts
      • Sub-Component: Graphic Design
        • Work Package: 1 new logo
        • Work Package: 10 photo edits
        • Work Package: 1 infographic

Step 4: Identify dependencies.

Once you list out all the work, down to the most detailed task, you identify work that depends on other work in order to get done. For example, you can’t complete video editing until you receive the voiceover script from the copywriter. Knowing the order in which work must be completed will help you schedule, manage time effectively, foresee and predict roadblocks. 

Step 5: Prioritize and assign.

The final step in completing your WBS is organizing all work in order of priority, using your list of dependencies. Once your WBS is in logical order, you can assign work packages to individuals, the build out your schedule from work packages all the way back through to the major deliverables.

Your WBS can also include any of the following information that can help with organization and transparency: 

  • Name of the department responsible for each piece of work

  • Estimated project cost and estimated work component costs

  • Start dates and delivery dates

A few best practices.

Follow the 100% rule. 

The 100% rule, developed by Gregory T. Haugan, states that a WBS should include 100% of the work that must be done to complete the deliverables, and should not include any work not defined in the scope of the project. Your WBS should be exhaustive and detailed, helping you identify work gaps or redundancy, and cutting out any unnecessary work. Be specific, be thorough, and don’t be afraid of being too detailed.

Be mutually exclusive. 

Do not repeat any work component, as it would violate the 100% rule and result in miscalculations of resources, time, and budget. Likewise, don’t assign work to more than one party to avoid overlap.

Focus on outcomes, not actions. 

Write your WBS with nouns, not verbs. A project manager’s focus is on receiving the right deliverables on time. Populating your WBS with outcomes shows your team what they must accomplish, and leaves it to them to set their tasks and get their work done.  

Create a WBS dictionary.

A WBS dictionary describes the scope of each work element, and includes a brief description of each work package. It serves as a more detailed supporting document and crucial reference to the visually centered WBS. For simple projects, a WBS dictionary might not be necessary, but it can always help with clarity of roles. 

Software or sticky notes? Your collaboration style.

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 in creating the WBS. The project manager should offer suggestions or point out problem areas, but the team should do most of the work, because they will be ultimately responsible for completing these tasks. Giving them agency over the WBS also serves to gain buy-in and valuable input.

In-person or distributed collaboration.

Depending on how your team likes to work together, or perhaps where they are located, you can create a WBS together using digital or analog tools. Both methods have benefits and drawbacks, so choose the method that works best for your team.

Collaborating in person can facilitate useful discussion and problem solving. And if your team works mostly on computers, switching to something tactile like notecards and a whiteboard can change things up and encourage everyone to think differently. This method helps you visualize work quickly and make changes easily, but it does require that your team will be able to meet for a long work session. 

For distributed teams or those with different time constraints, collaborative software can be the perfect solution. You can find software that estimates task time or cost, which can save time and help streamline integrations. 

Ultimately, you can use a combination of methods to leverage your team’s strengths and styles. 

Work with what works.

Creating a WBS is undoubtedly time-intensive and detailed work. However, the results and benefits are invaluable to your team and project success, in addition to helping create a smoother, more streamlined path toward completion. Use your WBS 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.

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