How to Create a Work Breakdown Structure


  •  Minute Read

One of the reasons that project managers fail to properly estimate their projects is they miss key activities when developing their schedules. Why does this happen? The failure to engage stakeholders and create a work breakdown structure (WBS).

work breakdown structure

Steven Pressfield said, "A great trick that I learned having worked as a screenwriter for many years, the way screenwriters work, is they break the project down into three-act structure: Act 1, Act 2, Act 3. I think that is a great way to break down any project, whether it's a new business or anything at all."

Whether we are creating a movie, a building, a highway, or a service center, wise project managers break down their projects into pieces. As we do, we create a structure for the project that helps stakeholders understand the project.

Some people struggle with the challenges of creating large, complex systems, highways, and companies. How can we do this? The answer: one bite at a time. Breaking projects into pieces makes the impossible possible. In addition, the break down creates the vision.

"Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs." –Henry Ford

Without this structure, people will likely be confused and make faulty assumptions. It's like someone trying to put together a puzzle without the puzzle box top. Furthermore, team members may miss critical elements resulting in rework later in the project.

So, how do we break down projects?

Divide Your Projects into Deliverables

As a part of the project scope management, we divide and subdivide project deliverables – any unique and verifiable product, result, or capability – into smaller, more manageable components. The lowest level is called a work package.

One of the most powerful tools for this exercise is the work breakdown structure (WBS) which is a hierarchical decomposition of the scope of work. The WBS may take different forms: an outline, an organizational chart, or a mind map.

Tip: When creating the WBS, use nouns for your deliverables, not verbs. For example, a work package might be labeled: "XYZ Report" rather than "Create XYZ Report."

We want to be sure the WBS includes all the product and project work, including the project management work. Additionally, notice that the initial deliverables-based WBS does not include predecessor or successor relationships and there is no network diagram.

Divide Your Deliverables into Activities

Next, we break down the deliverables into activities. In project time/schedule management, we continue the decomposition process to identify the project activities -- distinct, scheduled portions of work. What activities must be completed? How long will the activities take? Who will complete each activity?

Tip: Now, we use verbs for the activities such as:

  • Create XYZ Report
  • Publish XYZ Report
  • Archive XYZ Report

The outputs of defining activities include:

  • Activity list - comprehensive list of project activities
  • Activity attributes such as activity identifier (ID), name, description, successor and predecessor activities, imposed dates, resource requirements, constraints, and assumptions
  • Milestone list - a significant point or event in a project

Your Turn - Break Down Your Project

On one of your upcoming projects, create a WBS with your project team. Use sticky notes on a wall and use one color for the deliverables and a different color for the activities. Once completed, take a picture with your smartphone and replicate the WBS into an outline or mindmap. Lastly, distribute the WBS to your team for feedback.

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"Intelligent leadership, creative communication and depth of technical skill all describe Harry Hall." –John Bartuska, Director of HR–ONUG Communications

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