What is a work breakdown structure (WBS)?

Professionals organizing a work breakdown structure

Complex projects can often benefit from being broken down into smaller pieces to make them more manageable. And it can be hard to know where to start when it comes to managing projects more effectively. Read on to learn about work breakdown structures (WBS) and how to start implementing this approach.

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What is a work breakdown structure (WBS)?

A work breakdown structure (WBS) is a project management system that breaks projects into smaller, more manageable components or tasks. It is a visual tool that breaks down the entire project to make it easier to plan, organize, and track progress. A WBS assigns each task a unique identifier and then places them within a hierarchical structure that shows the relationship between each task and its related deliverables.

The main goals of a WBS are to provide a clear understanding of the project scope, identify all the work that needs to be done, and power effective project planning and management.

Characteristics of a WBS

There are two distinct approaches to creating a WBS that you can choose from — deliverable based (which focuses on individual tasks or parts of the project scope) or phase based (which breaks down projects by timeline).

Each WBS will look slightly different — depending on your existing workflow, the size of your team, and the type of project you’re working on. But there are a number of common characteristics that you’ll find in most work breakdown structures.

Steps to create a work breakdown structure

How to create a WBS

Now that you understand how a WBS works, here’s a step-by-step process for creating one for your next project:

  1. Define the project. The first step to creating a WBS is defining your project goals, objectives, and scope.
  2. Set project boundaries. Next, identify any key boundaries to help clearly define what is and isn’t included in the project scope. This could also include any important deadlines that you need to meet for your project to be successful.
  3. Identify project deliverables or phases. Once you’ve clearly defined your project, you’ll want to identify what needs to be completed, by who, and by what date.
  4. Define level one elements. These elements are high-level summaries of the deliverables required to meet the scope of the project.
  5. Break down each of the level one elements. Start “decomposing” each of the level one elements into unique lower level deliverables. Break down each element until any additional breakdown no longer makes the project easier to work through.
  6. Create a WBS dictionary. In this step, you’ll want to deliver a description of the work contained in each element. You’ll also want to define project information, including budgets, milestones, boundaries, risks, project owners, terms, and more.
  7. Identify team members. Here, describe the project team, stakeholders, and other interested parties. This will help everyone understand the scope of the project, who is working on which tasks, and the dependencies between tasks.
  8. Create a Gantt chart schedule. Gantt charts are an effective way to visually represent a project that makes it easy to understand task dependencies and project milestones.

WBS examples

There are a number of formats that a WBS can take, but here are a few examples to get you started:

Work breakdown structure vs. work breakdown schedule

If you’re already familiar with project management styles, you may have heard of both work breakdown structures and work breakdown schedules.

A work breakdown structure is a hierarchical decomposition of an entire project into smaller and more manageable components or tasks.

A work breakdown schedule, on the other hand, is a time-based plan that shows the duration and order of each task in the work breakdown structure. So while the two are related, a work breakdown schedule is just a part of the larger WBS.

Evaluate software to utilize WBS

A well-structured WBS breaks down projects into manageable components so that it is more manageable and less overwhelming. When you’re ready to get started, assess your current approach to project management to see if using WBS can help.

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