As a project manager, you’re always looking for ways to make your projects easier. You have a great team behind you and several projects to juggle, so why not try to make the process easier? With a work breakdown structure, you can outline just about any project to better plan it and guide your team through it. Below, learn how to create a work breakdown structure – and how it can benefit your team.
- What is a work breakdown structure (WBS)
- 6 steps to creating a work breakdown structure
- Work breakdown structure example
- Work breakdown structure formats
- 7 Benefits of using a WBS in project management
What is a work breakdown structure (WBS)
A work breakdown structure (WBS) is a project management tool that helps you break down large projects into smaller, more manageable parts. It’s a visual representation of your project plan and all the tasks involved. Gantt charts are a popular type of WBS, as are Kanban boards and spreadsheets.
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6 steps to creating a work breakdown structure
Below are the six steps to creating a WBS for your next project.
- Write out your project’s objective
- Break your project into phases
- Define project deliverables
- Divide your project into smaller levels
- Identify tasks for each deliverable
- Make team assignments
1Write out your project’s objective
Work breakdown structures divide your tasks into levels, where the highest is your project’s final result. That’s why creating a WBS starts with clearly defining your project’s main objective and scope. This way, you know exactly what you’re working toward, and you can shape your team’s efforts around it.
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2Break your project into phases
Here, you’re breaking your project down into smaller pieces that become the second level of your project. Within each of your second levels are the phases, or project milestones, your project will go through from beginning to end. These phases are like sub-projects that can make your project more manageable.
3Define project deliverables
The term “deliverable” is just a fancy project management word for a result or product, whether a piece of software, a report, or an upgrade. To define your project deliverables, think of what your team needs to create either while your project is in progress or once it’s nearly done. This way, you can regularly check off these items throughout the process. In the end, this could mean much less hassle and scrambling for you and your project team.
4Divide your project into smaller levels
In this step, list the tasks in your project’s lowest level. This level of tasks is based on the second level of phases you created in step two. You’ll work backward from your project’s final result and figure out the tiers of tasks needed to reach the finish line.
5Identify tasks for each deliverable
You’ll next break your deliverables into specific task groups. Each deliverable should include a group of tasks that push the deliverable – and the project – forward. These groups of tasks are known in the WBS dictionary as “work packages.”
Number all the task groups in your WBS so you can easily identify them based on their phases. For example, you might number a task group 1.3.2. You’ll instantly know that this group falls under your main project, it’s in the third phase of the project, and it’s that phase’s second task.
A key rule in making any WBS is including 100 percent of the work on your team’s plate. Otherwise, you risk your project’s timeline running long – and your budget running thin. You should also try not to duplicate tasks. Your tasks should be mutually exclusive so you know exactly how one depends on the other.
6Make team assignments
WBS work packages typically include tasks that your team needs to complete within a certain period. For example, if you hold weekly team meetings, you should break your tasks into packages your team can finish every week. This way, you can cover your team’s progress during each meeting. You should assign each task to specific team members and give everyone the resources they need to work effectively and efficiently.
Work breakdown structure example
Picture this: You and your team are launching a market research project. Your project’s main goal is to find potential customers and figure out your competitors’ advantages. From there, you decide to break your project into three phases: project planning, execution, and review. Your deliverables throughout these phases might include a project plan approval, brainstorming notes, a research summary, and a marketing strategy proposal.
Now, you can really dive into your project’s smallest details. Within each project phase, you’ll list the lower levels of your sub-projects. Your planning phase might have sub-phases called “project proposal” and “team preparation.”
Inside each secondary level, you’ll add numbered task groups that contribute to your sub-projects. You might include a task group called “stakeholder approval” that lives under the “project proposal” level. All the tasks within this group should be related to communicating and planning with stakeholders so they can sign off on your project plan.
Once you’ve created task groups for each level, you can assign your team members work packages. Start with package 1.1.1, and continue from there. You might decide to hold weekly review meetings to check in with your team and make sure they have the resources they need.
Work breakdown structure formats
There are a few different formats you can use for your WBS. There’s no one right answer here – you can choose whichever format best fits your project.
With an outline, you can break down and organize your project using a numbered or bulleted list. You can be as detailed as you’d like and easily start from the top and work your way down. You can write out your project’s objective at the top, then use your main point sections to signify your project phases. Beneath each main point, you can list sub-points that are your sub-phases. Your work packages should go below your sub-phases.
With a hierarchical structure, you’ll create an “umbrella effect” visual that covers all your project’s phases and sub-levels. This structure vertically breaks down your project. Your main objective will sit at the top and center, while the rest of its components will go under it. You’ll get a side-by-side view of all your project phases so you can clearly see what’s next.
With a tabular view of your project, you can see your project’s breakdown in a table. Each column in the table represents a level in your project. The cells in each column expand on the previous column – it’s like looking at a left-to-right path of your whole project. With a tabular view, you can keep all your WBS elements organized and easily see all your project’s levels and their details.
7 Benefits of using a WBS in project management
Now that you know how to use a WBS, the only thing left to know is why your team should use one. Below are some benefits of using a work breakdown structure for your projects.
- Helps you estimate project costs
- Helps show task dependencies
- Sets a project timeline
- Helps you write a statement of work
- Assigns responsibilities and roles
- Helps track progress
- Pinpoints your risk
1Helps you estimate project costs
Since you can visualize your project’s levels with a WBS, you can get a good idea of how much resource leveling needs to happen. This way, you can go piece by piece and estimate your budget well. The less guesswork involved, the more you can keep your project within your boundaries.
2Helps show task dependencies
With a WBS, you can see exactly which tasks you need to work on first before you can start on other ones. This way, you can set a precise plan for your tasks since you know exactly how they fall around each other.
3Sets a project timeline
With a WBS, you’re not taking a shot in the dark with your project’s timeline. Instead, you’ll have a clear view of your work packages, so you can estimate how long each task group will take. From there, you can create a solid timeline for your project.
4Helps you write a statement of work
A statement of work is an agreement between you and your client that defines the project and what your client will get at the end. Since your WBS lays out your project, you can use it to clearly show your client the project milestones, costs, and deliverables.
5Assigns responsibilities and roles
Delegating effectively becomes much easier once you know all the work you need to divvy up. With a WBS, you’ll have a better idea of how to divide your team’s time and assign tasks that align with everyone’s roles.
6Helps track progress
Moving through a WBS can be seamless since you can work your way down each project phase and task group. Once your team has finished a task group, you can cross it off and move on to the next one. As your team moves through your WBS, you’ll clearly see what they’ve done while keeping an eye on what’s ahead.
7Pinpoints your risk
With an overview of your entire project, you can better prepare for task groups that might be a bit challenging for your team. If you know a certain part might demand some extra effort, you can start putting resources in place now. This way, you keep your project running smoothly from the start.
A simpler way to manage your projects
Using a work breakdown structure can help you simplify even the most complex of projects. You’ll have a better project overview that both you and your team can use to plan ahead and stay on track. And as you work through your project, from the first phase all the way to the last deliverable, checking in with your team is essential. This way, you can update your team’s progress, assign new tasks, and plan for upcoming sub-phases.
Fellow has all the tools you need to run productive and efficient meetings. Creating collaborative meeting agendas, setting meeting action items, and receiving real-time feedback from your team members has never been easier. Where a WBS can help break down your project, Fellow can help with all things meetings.