How to create a thorough work breakdown structure (WBS)
A work breakdown structure (WBS) allows teams to accurately visualize a project in parts to avoid the overwhelm of trying to tackle the whole thing at once. This post will explain more about work breakdown structures, how to implement them, and provide helpful examples of WBS that have made a difference in the workplace.
In this article, you’ll learn:
- What a work breakdown structure is
- Benefits of a work breakdown structure
- Steps to create a work breakdown structure
- Rules to follow when creating a work breakdown structure
- Work breakdown structure examples
- Work breakdown structure templates
What is a work breakdown structure?
A work breakdown structure is a way to visualize the breakdown of a large project into smaller, more manageable parts. Often it takes the form of a document that details a project’s major and minor work components, timeline, and resources.
A work breakdown structure is made up of deliverables or milestones that lead to the completion of the assignment. These smaller parts could be called work packages, subtasks, or elements. Each of them defines the work, duration, and costs for what needs to be completed.
Benefits of a work breakdown structure
There are many benefits to incorporating a WBS into your workflow. A work breakdown structure can help you:
- Estimate the time and cost of a project and allocate resources. Having a clear idea of the resources a task will require can help map out your project according to those boundaries.
- Establish dependencies, visualize priority objectives, and identify areas of risk. Anything that includes more time or effort, any visible risks, or clear objectives can be organized and accounted for with a WBS.
- Visualize project scope for easier planning and schedule development. A project scope lays out each deliverable that will make up the final project. Having this visual aid can help teams see the bigger picture.
- Assign responsibilities with more ease and accuracy and clarify roles. The allocation of roles is crucial in beginning a project. When each step is laid out with a WBS, assigning specific responsibilities is simple.
- Track project progress and identify milestones and control points. As each assignment is completed, communicate the information to everyone so that the team is ready for the next step.
- Set clear timelines and ensure that no work is duplicated or overlooked. Without designating assignments and communicating progress, it’s easy to miss things or find multiple people working on the same task. A WBS keeps everyone on the same page.
Steps to create a work breakdown structure
Depending on the size and scope of your project, your work breakdown structure might have five steps, or it might have 15. There is no universally correct number — just keep breaking down the work into its smallest component parts. But these are some important steps to creating a WBS.
1. Identify key team members
It’s essential to identify the key team members early on in the process so that they can be involved in the planning and scheduling of the project. These team members can also help identify deliverables and check that all relevant information is included in the project. When key team members are identified, it’s easier to manage information and delegate responsibility.
2. Define project scope and objective
The key team members will help with this process. Defining the scope of the project begins with identifying its goals and objectives, as well as its boundaries and limitations. Defining the goal early will ensure that everyone involved in the project is clear about what they’re working toward and what’s expected of them.
3. Gather critical documents
To maintain the feeling of clarity and teamwork, it’s crucial to collect any relevant documents or information that will be needed throughout the project. Making sure that each team member has access to the proper resources helps them get their work done efficiently. This might include previous project plans, budget information, or technical specifications.
4. Define key phases and deliverables
This step involves key team members using their understanding of the project and breaking it down into smaller, specific parts. After dividing the larger project into phases like planning, design, feedback, and development, they can break each of those phases down into even more specific deliverables. Keep in mind the roles of each team member and how those deliverables could be divided among them.
5. Create work packages (tasks and subtasks)
After the project has been broken down, deliverables can be divided into individual tasks and delegated to the proper team members. The names of these tasks may vary, but they’re often referred to as elements, levels, deliverables, subtasks, or work packages. Breaking down deliverables is similar to making a timeline. Subtasks should chronologically lead to completing the deliverable, and each deliverable should lead to the completion of the larger tasks and the overall project.
6. Create a WBS dictionary
It can be confusing for team members to begin on a task that they had no part in creating. Crafting a detailed document that defines each task and deliverable and what is involved can improve the workflow process immensely. A WBS dictionary gives team members a place to resolve their confusion and continue working quickly. The dictionary should include information on each task or deliverable, including the work required, duration, and costs.
7. Create a schedule with the format of your choice
After each task has been broken down and assignments have been made, find a schedule that works for you and your team. The schedule should include information on each task or deliverable, as well as the timeline for completing them. The format of the schedule can vary depending on the needs of the project and the preferences of the team.
Rules to follow when creating a work breakdown structure
Following the steps outlined above will result in an organized, efficient WBS. While creating one work breakdown structure and using that same structure for each project could work for your business, a truly efficient WBS should follow an iterative process.
This means that after a work breakdown structure is used the first time, it should be altered to better suit the needs of your team going forward. This process should be done each time to ensure that your WBS can maintain efficiency within your business. These rules can serve as guidelines while creating your WBS to keep it optimal and up to date:
- Use the 100% rule. The work that is initially represented by your WBS must be 100% of the work necessary to complete the project. No unrelated work should be included in the WBS. Including all of the work right off the bat will ensure that each team member understands the entire process of completing the task.
- Make tasks mutually exclusive. Avoid duplicating any amount of work. Assigning a task twice or giving the same responsibility to multiple people would violate the 100% rule and result in confusion among team members. This could also cause issues when determining the amount of resources needed to complete a project.
- Focus on outcomes, not actions. Ensure that deliverables are focused on outcomes and not actions. For example, if you were baking a cake, a deliverable might be “frosted exterior” while actions would include “make the frosting.”
- Use the 8/80 rule. This rule is only one example of how to determine if a deliverable is small but not too small. The 8/80 rule says that a deliverable should take no less than 8 hours and no more than 80 — which would be 10 days if you work full time. There are other ways of determining the correct amount of work, but if you are unsure, go with what you feel is best for your team or what has worked in the past.
- Divide into three levels. As a general rule, try to include three levels of detail in your WBS. For example, in an editorial setting, this could be the first draft of a document, a second draft, and a final draft. And each of those levels would contain each deliverable that leads to it. This may vary depending on the complexity of the project, but if most of your WBS has three levels of detail, then you’re on the right track.
- Always make assignments. Each task should be assigned to a team or individual. There should be no overlap in assignments to keep responsibilities clear.
Work breakdown structure examples
Work breakdown structures often look something like this.
Notice how this WBS uses each guideline to provide a clear vision of how to complete the project — in this case, baking a cake. The table breaks down the tasks with no duplication so they can be assigned to individuals or groups easily.
The tasks are first broken down into three sections and then divided into subtasks that can be easily managed. Any number of subtasks could be included. In this example, there are four for each deliverable. Doing so divides 100% of the work among one team to complete the project. To add to this example, a budget could also be included with each task and subtask.
Work breakdown structure templates
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Learn to create a work breakdown structure interactive template
Plan, prioritize, and iterate work the easy way
Work breakdown structures can take a project from stressful to manageable. Being organized is key to designing an effective WBS that fosters efficiency and collaboration.
When you’re ready to get started on creating your work breakdown structure, Adobe Workfront has the tools your business needs. Workfront provides templates to create and personalize your WBS easily, and it can help every step of the way.
It allows you to meet the demands of the moment by streamlining project planning and execution, managing asset storage and use, and providing full visibility into work context and status — all within the tools you know and love.
Take a product tour or watch the overview video to learn more about Adobe Workfront.