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How to Create a Work Breakdown Structure [Project Management Fundamentals]

[fa icon="calendar"] 03-Jul-2020 10:30:00 / by Iliyana Stareva

work-breakdown structure in project managementToday, we continue with our project management fundamentals series. 

So far we've covered the differences between projects and operations as well as those between projects, programmes and portfolios, the DARCI model for stakeholder engagement followed by how to run an effective project kick-off meeting and lastly, how to create a project charter

Now, we'll look at another crucial piece of project management and probably my favourite one as I love looking at the details and planning the execution - the work breakdown structure or WBS. 

A work breakdown structure (WBS) is basically the breakdown of all deliverables into smaller components. The goal of the WBS is to organise the project team so they can work in manageable sections. 

The Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK) by the Project Management Institute (PMI)defines the WBS as a “deliverable oriented hierarchical decomposition of the work to be executed by the project team.”

The WBS starts with the end objectives and then divides them into smaller components (called work packages) again and again in terms of size, duration and responsibilities until they can't be broken down any more and until they allow to complete all the steps necessary to achieve the objectives.

In essence, the WBS demonstrates the relationship between the project deliverables or phases such as products, services or results and the scope which is the work to be executed. 

What does a Work Breakdown Structure Look Like?

I think the best way to get an idea of what a WBS is is to look at a visual example: 


As you can see, in this WBS there are 3 levels that you can break the work into: 

  • Level 1 is the overall objective of the construction.
  • Level 2 includes the phases or key deliverables.
  • Level 3 breaks down each of the phases or key deliverables into more manageable pieces (which can continue to be broken down into more but you don't want to get excessive at this). 

Note, the numbering is quite important as it'll allow you to track more easily and you don't need to know own all words but can always refer back to the drawing for the details. 

How to Create a Work Breakdown Structure? 

  1. First thing you need is to know the project scope - what's in and out of scope. You will have this from your project charter which we have covered here
  2. With the scope clear in your head, now you can break down the scope into the main deliverables or phases that you need to execute on to allow you to achieve the overall project objectives. For example, you can't start a new construction without preparing the site first or buying the necessary resources. Make sure you number the deliverables/phases - e.g. 1, 2, 3 etc. 
  3. With the key deliverables defined, now you can start thinking about each piece of work that needs to be done to complete the deliverable - your work packages that need to be independent i.e. not depend on other ongoing elements as you're trying to break this down to the smallest components possible. You need to be able to estimate the time and resources you need for the completion of each work package. Also, you need to make sure to number those as well so if a work package fits under deliverable 1, then it should be numbered as 1.1. and then 1.2. etc. etc. 
  4. Once the work packages have been defined, you can create a WBS dictionary which includes the key info for each work package but in more detail because on the WBS visual you can't fit everything you need and you should not overload it either. Here's an example of a WBS dictionary: 


And that's it - these are the basics you need to know about in order to create your first WBS. 

There are also tools that can help you with this like Lucidchart for example. 

When you lead a project, I always recommend building the WBS together with your project team. Ideally, you should do that during a workshop where everyone can participate. Sticky notes work very well in this scenario as people can add up components for each deliverable and then everybody feels like part of the planning and execution so they'll be more motivated to do the work later as they've been the ones to define it. 

If you think about it, you can even use a WBS in your own projects - for example, moving to a new house or fixing up the garden. 

Every project should have a WBS in whatever form you see fit but it's crucial that you have such a breakdown so you don't miss critical pieces of work and so that you can better organise your project team. 

Once the WBS is done, then you can start thinking about timelines and who does what which we will cover in upcoming posts. 


Have you ever created a WBS? How did it help you?


Topics: Project Management

Iliyana Stareva

Written by Iliyana Stareva

Iliyana Stareva is the author of Inbound PR - the book that is transforming the PR industry. She's also a keynote speaker and a consultant in inbound and digital for fast-growing companies and agencies. Currently, Iliyana is Chief of Staff to the EMEA President at ServiceNow. Before that, she held global and EMEA-wide positions at Cisco and HubSpot. She is also certified by the PMI as a Project Management Professional (PMP)®. In her free time, you can find Iliyana writing for her blog, dancing salsa or travelling the world.

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