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.

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What is a Work Breakdown Structure?

A Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is a breakdown of all the work that will go into completing a project. A WBS a way for you to build out a flowchart that breaks all of the deliverables down into manageable tasks and provide your team with a guide for developing a product or completing a project.

There are three general components that make up a work breakdown structure:

  1. Deliverables: Define the end products that make up the WBS at a high level. You’ll break them down into smaller pieces later so you can assign work to individual team members.
  2. Work Components: Group similar tasks and make some general milestones or work phases. You’re still not at the individual task level yet, but you’ll be able to conceptualize how the process will go.
  3. Individual Tasks: Also called “work packages,” these are the most detailed level of your WBS. They should be assigned to one deliverable and completed by a single person.

A clearly defined work breakdown structure allows you to make sure every detail and phase of a project is accounted for before you begin. It visually communicates the big picture , and helps everyone stay on the same page throughout the entire project.

When all of your deliverables are broken down into smaller tasks, it’s easier to establish dependencies and create a project timeline. You can also write a more detailed statement of work (SOW), which keeps the plan in scope and sets clear expectations for your team and stakeholders.

Since the work to be done is already defined and broken down into manageable pieces, your team can get to work immediately instead of waiting for instructions. They can be more productive , and you’re able to hold them accountable for the work they do.

Getting this kind of clarity at the beginning stages of a project 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.

Although you can make work breakdown structures by hand or in flowchart tools, it’s often time-consuming and isn’t easily updated. Using project management software to build a work breakdown structure keeps all the information up-to-date and gives your team clarity while you have the flexibility you need to plan work.

Why should you create a WBS?

Team benefits

Project manager benefits

Organizational benefits

Visualization is key

While you can create a Work Breakdown Structure in outline format, one of the major benefits of this document is giving you a visual hierarchy of your workflow 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 Work Breakdown Structure with a table, flow chart, or collaboration software.

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How to create a Work Breakdown Structure

When you create a work breakdown structure, you start by outlining the desired outcome. Working backward from completion to kickoff, you divide the project into smaller deliverables then break down each deliverable into manageable tasks and subtasks.

Depending on the size and scope of your project, your Work Breakdown Structure 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 resources, deliverables, or constraints, you should clear them up before you dive into your Work Breakdown Structure. 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 using a digital proofing tool. Depending on the project, there might be multiple 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

You can break down work components further if necessary:

Work Component: Facebook

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 Work Breakdown Structure 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

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 creating a Work Breakdown Structure 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, then 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:

On-Demand:  Four Steps to Streamline Marketing Workflow

WBS best practices

Follow the 100% rule

The 100% rule, developed by Gregory T. Haugan states that a Work Breakdown Structure 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

Create your Work Breakdown Structure 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.

WBS collaboration process

The process of creating a Work Breakdown Structure 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 remote 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 remote 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 Work Breakdown Structure 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.