This post was originally published on July 3, 2019, and updated most recently on April 9, 2021.
Whether you’re learning a new language, writing a novel, or building a website, breaking down your project into smaller, manageable tasks helps you stay motivated and organized — not to mention calm as you tackle an otherwise overwhelming endeavor.
A work breakdown structure (WBS) is a key part of your project management methodology, and it involves exactly what it sounds like: taking a project and breaking it down into smaller tasks and sub-tasks. It gives you a top-down view of all of your deliverables, which in turn helps you plan your roadmap and create your business case or project proposal.
Once you’re comfortable with the concept, you can then use it for pretty much any kind of project, big or small, whether it takes place over years, months, weeks, or just a few hours.
How to create a work breakdown structure in 3 steps
1. Work out your top-level deliverables
If you’re working on a larger project, gather everyone who should be involved and work out your end goal. This should include all the top-level tasks that will help you reach that point. For example, if you’re rebranding a company, your top-level deliverables might include:
- A new logo and tagline
- A new tone of voice
- Brand guidelines
- Promo material
- Revamped internal communications
Involving your stakeholders in this process improves your chances of getting it right the first time; it’s easy to overlook something if you don’t consider all sides. It also helps everyone understand what’s expected of them and why from the get-go. Giving your team influence at this early stage also helps everyone feel invested in the project’s trajectory.
2. Break it down
Next, list every task that goes into achieving each of these deliverables. This should take longer than the first stage since it’s a way more in-depth exercise. Again, getting everyone involved here will help ensure you don’t miss anything.
Here are three questions to ask yourself:
- What needs to be done to complete this deliverable?
- What are the task dependencies? (Or, in other words, does one task rely on the completion of an earlier one?)
- Have you addressed every possible angle? Remember, taking a shortcut may seem like a good idea at the time, but often spells trouble further down the line.
Meetings and brainstorming sessions are a great way to pool ideas, but they shouldn’t be the full stop to this stage. It’s human nature to forget things and remember them at a later date. Make your list as comprehensive as possible by allowing team members to add tasks for review after the meeting, as well as during — either via email, a shared doc, or right within in your dedicated project management tool.
3. Refine your structure
This is where you get even more detailed. Take the list you created in the step above, and examine each stage carefully. Expand each task out into further actions, and identify any potential weaknesses or setbacks that may prevent you from completing each item. Remember, the more thoroughly you do this part, the lower your chances of experiencing a surprise later on.
Being meticulous about identifying every deliverable also helps stakeholders and your boss understand your timeframes and budget requirements. Having detailed, justifiable information on hand means you’ll be in a stronger position to explain what can and can’t be done and negotiate from there.
Once you’ve completed this stage, you’ll have a better idea about whether you’re project is in — or out — of scope. If the latter is true, then you can refer back to your stage one deliverables and scale back as needed.
Levels of a work breakdown structure
The deliverables that are part of your WBS should fall into different tiers of importance. Those tiers should be:
- The Top Level: Think the big picture of your project. This’ll be the project title or final deliverable.
- Controls Account: These will be the main project phases and deliverables.
- Work Packages: Laddering up to that will be the group of tasks that lead to the controls account level.
- Activities: These are the lower leveled tasks needed to complete the work package.
Choose your medium
There are three to four main approaches to creating a work breakdown structure. We’re going to take a quick look at the pros and cons of each to help you choose the one that’s right for you.
1. Flowchart or Gantt Chart
Both flowcharts and Gantt charts are useful diagrams for showing a hierarchy of tasks. Both are perfect for smaller projects but can get convoluted if you include too many stages. An interactive Gantt chart — say within your project management tool — is a great workaround for this.
How you create your chart is up to you. Some people go straight for a whiteboard and take pictures afterward on their phone. Other people prefer the security and flexibility of using diagramming software that allows you to start from a template, edit anytime, and work collaboratively with your team. Others use a combination of both.
There’s no right or wrong way, but a general rule of thumb is this: If it’s a small, personal project and you’re in a rush, freehand is fine. If it’s a larger, client- or team-facing job, then choose the more professional-looking, shareable option.
2. A list
Your work breakdown structure could take the form of a list. For smaller personal projects, a simple hand-written plan will do.
If your project is more complex or you need to involve team members and stakeholders, you’ll need to make things more professional (not to mention easier to read and access). Using project management software you can create a detailed and interactive task list, assign people to tasks, and receive notifications in real-time about progress. This not only saves you having to chase people down, but it also means that if you do need to share your project requirements to clients or stakeholders, you’ll have something that looks professional.
3. A spreadsheet
This one’s similar to a list, but it allows you to go into more detail thanks to the column and row formatting. It’s perfect for larger projects where you need to track things like time and budget estimates. A shared spreadsheet is best to avoid version mix-ups and undocumented updates.
It might be tempting to skip the step of creating a work breakdown structure in the name of agility and time-saving. But pause for thought. While it is possible to deliver a project without proper planning, chances are you’ll negatively impact quality and efficiency later on. So properly investing time in this initial stage is always a better option.
As with planning for any project, the more tools you have at your disposal, the better. Investing in project management software means you’ll have all the features you need to make sure everything runs smoothly from the very beginning – from task management features that help you and your team keep on top of your to-do lists, to enhanced team collaboration with greater project transparency. With all of this at your fingertips, you’ll be able to create an accurate work breakdown structure – and make sure your project runs as smoothly as possible at kick-off.