Work Breakdown Structure (WBS): The Complete Guide

Written by Samantha Ferguson

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Last updated on 11th April 2024

Work Breakdown Structure (or WBS, as it’s sometimes known) is about dividing a project into smaller, more digestible chunks, making it easier to plan, execute, and monitor. 

In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about work breakdown structures: what they are, how to create them, and how to use them effectively in your project planning. 

We’ll also provide some templates and examples to get you started. So let’s dive in!

What is a work breakdown structure?

A work breakdown structure is a planning tool used by project managers to break down the work of a project into smaller, more manageable ‘pieces’ in order to make it easier to track progress – as well as identify potential issues. 

As an organisational tool, WBS helps to assign roles for each task and subtask and define who’s responsible for what. 

Typically created from the project scope, a WBS lets teams map out all tasks that need to be completed from beginning to end, starting with the larger activities and breaking them down into more granular detail until every element of the project has been accounted for. 

With its flexibility and scalability, this popular planning tool can easily be modified along the way to adjust for changes or environmental factors that arise during the lifetime of a project.

Our Insight
By sharing responsibility and workload, you create a situation where – if everyone looks after their own little part – the ‘big picture’ starts to come to fruition.

The benefits of using a WBS

So, we’ve established that a work breakdown structure is an incredibly useful tool for project managers. What are the actual benefits of working in this way?

    1. Improved project planning

    A WBS breaks down complex projects into smaller, more manageable tasks, making it easier to plan and schedule the work that needs to be completed. 

    By identifying all the stuff that needs to be done, you can create a more accurate project plan, including timelines, milestones, and deliverables – keeping your entire project running smoothly and optimising chances of success.

    2. Better resource allocation

    With a detailed WBS, you can identify the specific resources needed for each task, including people, equipment, time and materials. 

    This lets you allocate resources more efficiently and effectively – ensuring that everyone and everything is being used to their fullest potential.

    3. Greater project control

    A work breakdown structure provides a clear and comprehensive overview of the project, allowing you to monitor progress, identify potential issues, and make necessary adjustments as issues arise.

    By breaking the project down into smaller pieces, you can track progress more easily and keep everyone on the same page.

    4. Enhanced communication

    A WBS can serve as a valuable communication tool, since it lets you share project information with team members, stakeholders, and other relevant parties. 

    By presenting the project in a clear, structured format, you can facilitate communication and ensure that everyone understands what needs to be done and when. 

    People can grasp not only their own role in the bigger picture of your project, but also understand what others are working on.

    5. Improved risk management

    With a work breakdown structure, you can identify potential risks and develop strategies to mitigate them. 

    By breaking the project down into smaller pieces, you can identify areas where risks are more likely to occur and take steps to address them before they become major issues.

    The different types of work breakdown structure

    Further underlining the flexibility of this way of working, there are a variety of different types of WBS to be used and adapted depending on the needs of your project.

    1. Deliverable-oriented WBS

    This type of WBS focuses on the end deliverables of the project and breaks them down into smaller, more manageable tasks. Each task is assigned to a specific team or individual responsible for completing it. 

    Deliverable-oriented WBS

    WORKS BEST FOR: Projects with clearly defined outcomes.

    EXAMPLE: Building a website

    If you were building a website, you could start by laying out your deliverables – all the different components that are required to be completed. These might include:

    Project Plan
    Wireframes and Mockups
    Web Content (Text, Images, Videos)
    User Interface Design
    Front-end Development
    Back-end Development
    Testing
    Launch

    Within this, each deliverable could be assigned its own range of tasks, allocated to teams or team members, and given deadlines.

    2. Phase-oriented WBS

    This type of WBS breaks down the project into phases, with each phase representing a major milestone or objective. Each phase is further broken down into smaller tasks, allowing for better project management and monitoring.

    Phase-oriented WBS

    WORKS BEST FOR: Projects with distinct stages. 

    Each phase would then be given its own set of tasks and assigned to specific people.

    EXAMPLE: New product development

    In a phase-oriented WBS, you start by identifying the different project phases it needs to pass through.
    So, hypothetically, if you were developing a new product, these might be:

    Concept Development
    Design
    Prototyping
    Testing
    Launch

    Each phase would then be given its own set of tasks and assigned to specific people.

    3. Organisational-oriented WBS

    This type of WBS is based on the organisational structure of the project team. Tasks are grouped according to the team or department responsible for completing them, making it easier to allocate resources and track progress.

    Organisational-oriented WBS

    WORKS BEST FOR: Projects with multiple departments or stakeholders involved.

    EXAMPLE: Construction project

    You might use an organisational-oriented WBS for a construction project by dividing the project up into the required ‘departments’ involved. These might include:

    Plumbers
    Electricians
    Suppliers
    Bricklayers
    Surveyors

    The WBS would be organised around these vendors, with each one responsible for completing their specific tasks related to the construction project.

    But – as the overall project manager – you’d have a clear overview of what each team had to work on to get the job done.

    4. Activity-oriented WBS

    This type of WBS breaks down the project into specific activities or tasks that need to be completed, regardless of the end deliverable. Each activity is assigned to a specific team or individual responsible for completing it.

    Activity-oriented WBS

    WORKS BEST FOR: Projects with many interdependent tasks. 

    EXAMPLE: Planning a conference

    If you were setting up a conference, you might create an Activity-oriented WBS that was based around the various interdependent tasks and activities required to get this up and running. For example: 

    Conference Program
    Venue and Logistics
    Speakers and Presentations
    Marketing and Communications
    Attendee Experience
    Budget and Financials
    Sponsorship and Exhibitors
    Evaluation and Feedback

    Tasks for each deliverable could then be assigned to teams or individuals, with specific deadlines for completion.

    5. Hybrid WBS

    This type of WBS combines two or more of the above types, depending on the needs of the project. For example, a hybrid WBS may include a phase-oriented WBS for overall project management, with an activity-oriented WBS for specific tasks or deliverables.

    WORKS BEST FOR: Projects where you have a ‘mix’ of any or all of the other types of WBS and need to use a highly customised WBS to suit the needs of the project team.

    EXAMPLE: Software development project

    In this example project, the WBS could be organised into both deliverables and phases. For example, the project might be broken down into distinct phases, such as:

    Design
    Development
    Testing
    Deployment

    These would each have their own set of deliverables, such as wireframes, prototypes, and code releases. But within each phase, the WBS could also be organised according to the various departments involved in the project, such as:

    The development team
    The design team
    The quality assurance team
    The project management team.

    Each department would be responsible for completing their specific tasks related to the project, with clear deadlines and dependencies.

    A hybrid WBS would be necessary in this project because it would allow for both deliverable-based and phase-based management, as well as departmental management.

    This would provide a more comprehensive and flexible structure for managing the project, ensuring that all deliverables are completed on time and within budget while also allowing for more efficient departmental coordination and resource allocation.

    In essence a hybrid WBS offers the best of both worlds – a high-level overview of the project’s phases and deliverables, as well as a more detailed breakdown of the tasks and responsibilities within each department. 

    How to Create a WBS

    Developing a WBS isn’t difficult – all it takes is understanding the basics of project management and following a few steps. 

    1. Identify the major deliverables

    The first step is to identify the major deliverables or outcomes that the project aims to achieve. These are usually the key objectives or milestones of the project.

    2. Break down deliverables into sub-deliverables

    Once the major deliverables have been identified, break them down into smaller, more manageable sub-deliverables. This step involves breaking down the major objectives into smaller, more specific tasks that need to be completed to achieve them.

    3. Continue breaking down until you reach manageable tasks

    Continue breaking down the sub-deliverables into smaller and more manageable tasks until you have reached a level of detail that is sufficient for project planning and management. This level of detail will depend on the complexity and size of the project.

    4. Organise the tasks

    Organise the tasks into a hierarchical structure that shows the relationship between the different tasks. This structure will help in project planning and tracking progress.

    5. Assign resources and estimate time

    Assign resources and estimate the time required to complete each task. This will help in determining the project schedule and budget.

    6. Review and refine

    Review and refine the WBS to ensure that it accurately reflects the scope of the project and that all necessary tasks have been included.

    7. Use the WBS as a reference

    Once the WBS has been created, use it as a reference tool throughout the project to ensure that all tasks are completed as planned and that the project stays on track.

    Work Breakdown Structure: A Summary

    To recap, creating a work breakdown structure (WBS) is a critical step in planning and managing a project. 

    By breaking down a project into smaller, manageable deliverables, the project team can organise their work, allocate resources effectively, and track progress more easily. 

    Expert Tip
    Don’t forget – the type of WBS used depends on the nature of the project and the needs of the project team. By selecting the appropriate type of WBS, the project team can ensure that their project is well-organised, efficiently managed, and successfully completed.

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    Written by <a href="https://www.project.co/author/samanthaferguson/" target="_self">Samantha Ferguson</a>

    Written by Samantha Ferguson

    Samantha is Head of Content at Project.co. She has 5+ years' experience in the project management industry and in that time she's written over 100 articles on the subject and conducted studies on employee engagement and how AI is impacting the industry. She also has a lifetime's experience of being obsessed with organisation and productivity - Samantha is that person who plans travel itineraries down to the hour! Her favourite Project.co feature is the AI assistant.

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