Designing Work Breakdown Structure: A Brief Guide

5 min readNov 23, 2020

Modern professionals don’t suffer due to the scarcity of valuable project management techniques. They have access to a variety of instruments and resources that help them plan and execute tasks just right. But some project management tools deserve special attention because they serve their purpose exceptionally well. And no doubt, it’s highly important for every success-oriented project manager to know how to utilize such exceptional instruments and when.

In this article, for instance, we’ll talk about the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). We’ll explain what it is and discuss the role of this useful tool in project management. Besides, we’ll outline some key implementation rules and list the major benefits that the WBS is bound to provide you with.

What Is the WBS?

The WBS is the arrangement of all project elements, starting from deliverables and ending with work packages, within a tree hierarchy. It is meant to display the entire scope of work one needs to complete to attain a certain project goal.

The WBS design process starts with the clarifying of the final project goals and DELIVERABLES, i.e., the results you aspire to achieve — they stay at the top of the WBS hierarchy (below the name of project as a whole). Consequently, these highest-level elements are decomposed into smaller and more manageable pieces, including major operational and product elements (such as Application Development, Systems Engineering or Data Analysis) and the further definable units: subsystems, smaller product components and features, etc.

The overall number of WBS levels may vary depending on your project’s complexity and nature. However, it all should come down to WORK PACKAGES — the smallest and lowest-level WBS units, aka terminal elements that complete the decomposition process.

To clarify this not-so-simple explanation of the WBS, let’s look at what a hierarchy tree for a content marketing project may look like:

WBS for a content marketing project

Role in Project Management

The WBS takes a crucial part in project PLANNING and performance CONTROL.

Work packages — such as Outline, Final Illustration, List of promo channels and other terminal elements in the hierarchy provided above — can be used to estimate project duration, develop budgets and create timelines.

Usually, work packages denote some sub-deliverables rather than specific project activities. Thus, to analyze how much time, money and effort you have to to invest in attaining them, it’s pivotal to identify all the tasks involved in the process.

Let’s assume WBS element 1.1.1. from the figure above. The main activities that a copywriter should complete in order to produce an article outline are:

  • Information research,
  • Keyword analysis,
  • Concept pitch,
  • Topic approval,
  • Writing,
  • And editing.

After identifying these activities, the copywriter will analyze how many resources are required to realize them successfully. Then, the estimates for individual tasks will be summed up and, thereby, the copywriter will obtain the final estimate for the work package (i.e., Outline) as a whole.

In the same way, by adding together the forecasts for every separate work package from the WBS, you can find out the overall estimate for your project. This information will consequently help you develop very accurate schedules and budgets.

Besides, by referring to different deliverables and sub-deliverables outlined in the WBS, you can always check on employee performance and monitor how successful your team is in providing the desired work results. But remember that the quality of your control efforts will be higher in case you attach realistic estimates, deadlines and success criteria to every WBS unit at hand.

Creating a WBS: Important Rules to Follow

100% rule

Your WBS must cover 100% of the project scope — no more, no less. Therefore, be sure to include all the relevant deliverables, operational elements, sub-units and work packages in the hierarchy. The WBS must be as detailed as it’s only possible. A high level of detalization is the key to forming a fuller picture of project tasks and activities at the estimation stage.

No overlaps

All the elements in your WBS must be mutually exclusive. Make certain each element is unique and its scope doesn’t overlap with the scope of other elements in the chart. This way, you’ll avoid duplicated work and develop a much clearer project plan.

Focus on results and deliverables

The best thing you can do to guarantee that 100% of the work scope is taken into account during the WBS design is focus on deliverables instead of specific actions and tasks. In fact, the latter are easier to identify when you know which outcomes you want to get. Thus, pay more attention to formulating deliverables in the first place. The rest will follow along.

Hierarchical numbering

Sequential numbering is one of the primary WBS features. And when creating your own hierarchy tree, your main goal is to maintain a coherent numbering format, which will let you get a uniform, consistent and easily readable chart.

Major Benefits

As a rigorous planning system, the WBS produces massive benefits for project managers. Designing one yourself, you receive:

  • A comprehensive overview of the entire project scope, which helps to think through each and every step towards your goals;
  • A highly detailed, visually structured action plan that leaves almost no room for error;
  • Assistance during project estimation and resource allocation, which saves time and boosts process efficiency;
  • A tool for team collaboration that fosters effective brainstorming and idea sharing;
  • An instrument for progress control that lets you stay in the know of how well you are in attaining the formulated objectives.

In other words, a well-developed WBS will support you on all fronts. Be sure to devote your entire attention and a newly acquired knowledge about this technique to performing it correctly. Using the WBS is a sure way to increase your chances for project success.




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