Project management

Work Breakdown Structure as a Project Management Tool – Forbes Advisor


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A Work Breakdown Structure, or WBS, is a project management tool that takes a step-by-step approach to completing large projects with multiple moving parts. By breaking down the project into smaller components, a WBS can integrate scope, cost, and deliverables into one tool. While most WBSs are deliverable-based, they can also be phase-based. Read on to learn more about what a WBS can do for your business.

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What is the work breakdown structure?

The Project Management Institute’s PMBOK® Guide – Third Edition defines WBS as “a deliverable-oriented hierarchical breakdown of work to be performed by the project team to achieve project objectives and create required deliverables. It organizes and defines the total scope of the project. Each top-down level represents an increasingly detailed definition of project work. The WBS is broken down into work packages. The focus of the hierarchy deliverables includes both internal and external deliverables.

Some terms commonly used with WBS project management include:

  • Acceptance criteria : Standards to be met to meet the requirements of customers or other stakeholders
  • Budget: Expenses related to the project, which can be broken down by deliverables or phases
  • Deliverables: The product, service or results created at different stages of the project. For example, in a website design project, a deliverable-based WBS would be structured around deliverables such as URL, layout, and written content.
  • Milestones: Critical project steps identified in the WBS
  • Steps : The different stages of a project. For example, in a website design project, a phase-based WBS would be structured around things like discovery, design, and launch, rather than specific deliverables.
  • WBS: Work breakdown structure

Main features and components of the WBS

The 100% rule is a key part of a work breakdown structure. This means that the WBS encompasses all aspects of the project, as well as the person or team responsible for that component.

Another key feature of WBS is its level structure. When applying the 100% rule, level 1 of the WBS will be the entire project. Some WBS include a description or overview of the project at the top level if it is not explicit. Then each level below breaks down the project in more detail, using the 100% rule at each level. For example, if you are creating a WBS for a new website, level 1 would be “Website for a new brand”. Level 2 elements break down the deliverables needed to complete the project, such as secure website URL, design layout, and content development. Each subsequent level continues to break down the elements in more detail.

Why a WBS is useful for project management

The Work Breakdown Structure is a useful project management tool for several reasons. First, it breaks the project down into small-sized components, making the project less overwhelming and more manageable.

Second, it provides a roadmap for the different people and teams working on the project. Many projects involve different teams moving in tandem, all of which must coordinate and integrate for the completion of the project. By using a WBS, different people and teams can focus on their specific tasks and deliverables while seeing how their part fits into the project as a whole.

Finally, a WBS is an excellent tool for measuring project completion, identifying milestones, and allocating budget resources. By using the 100% rule, project managers can be confident that the project is properly budgeted and that they will not encounter any obstacles due to a “surprise” deliverable.

How to Create and Use a WBS Effectively

To effectively use a work breakdown structure, it is important to include all the components of a project (remember the 100% rule described above) but without too much detail. It turns out that there can be too much of a good thing when it comes to WBS.

To create a WBS:

1. Define the project. The first step in creating a work breakdown structure is to clearly establish the project. For some projects, this can be quite straightforward. For other projects, it may be necessary to refine the actual scope of the project so that the WBS fits appropriately and does not become cumbersome.

2. Define the project boundaries. Once the project is defined and described, you can set limits on what is and is not included in the WBS.

3. Identify the deliverables of the project. This will include the high level deliverables associated with the project, such as a project scope statement or mission statement.

4. Define the level 1 elements. Remember the 100% rule when creating level 1 deliverables.

5. Break down each of the elements of level 1. The process of breaking down level 1 elements is called breaking down. It consists of breaking down a task into smaller and smaller pieces, applying the 100% rule at each level. At each subsequent level, ask yourself if further decomposition would improve project management. Keep breaking down the items until the answer to this question is “no”. When you have completed the decomposition process for each item in Level 1, the WBS is complete.

6. Identify the team members. Identify a person or team responsible for each item.

7. Create a Gantt chart to accompany the WBS. A Gantt chart shows activities over time so that you can visually see information related to the project schedule and its various activities.

WBS Examples, Templates and Tools

If you’re looking for guidance, there are plenty of examples, templates, and software tools to help you create a work breakdown structure for your project. If you want to see some examples of how others have used the WBS as a project management tool, check out

If you need a little more guidance, templates might be the way to go. On Monday, ProjectManager and Wrike are available for download on several models.

If you’re looking for even more help building your WBS, or need a more complete and detailed WBS, a software tool might be the way to go. Platforms such as WBS Schedule Pro and Microsoft Visio provide intuitive software options.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why should project managers use a WBS?

A work breakdown structure can help project managers “see the forest through the trees” by showing the individual components of a project in one document. It also helps project managers communicate information regarding a project budget and schedule to key stakeholders, including individuals and teams involved in the project. Finally, by breaking down the project into smaller components, a WBS integrates scope, cost, and deliverables into one tool.

How can a project manager get started with a WBS?

There are several tools and software available to help you create a WBS. Monday, ProjectManager, and Wrike all have templates and tools to walk you through the process. Additionally, software options like WBS Schedule Pro and Microsoft Visio are available if you need a more comprehensive approach.

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