How to Create an Effective Work Breakdown Structure?

With the huge amount of work constantly in the background, it is difficult for project managers to plan the work of their teams. You can easily get overwhelmed by a large number of disorganized features, unclear deliverables, and non-prioritized tasks. According to the 2021 Wellington report, 62% of companies expect that there will be even more project-based work in the future. So how do you manage such a large amount of work without missing out on every aspect of it? Put in a bit of structuring and decomposition!

What is a Work Breakdown Structure?

Work breakdown structure (WBS) is a project management technique that encourages you to split complex projects into smaller, more manageable chunks (individual tasks) — such that are faster to crack. Essentially, you can use this technique to transform your scope of work into more specific subareas and subtasks. Essentially, WBS helps you better understand a project’s elements and dependencies. 

WBS isn’t a standalone software development methodology such as Agile or Waterfall. But it’s a good complementary tool worth using. When performing planning in Agile, a WBS ensures that everyone knows what needs to be done so that they can break it down into elements like Epics, User Stories, etc. 

There are four WBS levels. In a WBS structure, every level should include all the work required to complete its parent task:

  • The top layer: project aims, final deliverables, and timelines
  • Control account: core project’s phases and deliverables
  • Work packages: task groups that lead to the controls account levels
  • Activities: tasks needed to complete the work packages

See the relationships between levels in the work breakdown structure example below: 

the work breakdown structure example

Source: Wrike

Also, there are two types of work breakdown structure:

  • The top-down WBS involves managers or leaders making all major WBS decisions, such as defining all deliverables, outcomes, and activities.
  • The bottom-up WBS assumes that team members provide input into how they will accomplish company-set goals. 

Main Components Of Work Breakdown Structure

If you are new to WBS and project management, here are the essential terms to remember: 

  • WBS Dictionary: a document with detailed explanations of each WBS component: milestones, deliverables, activities, scope, dates, resources (as defined by Project Management Institute (PMI)
  • Task Number & Description: the hierarchy of tasks and detailed information about what needs to be done. 
  • Owner: the individual who assigns, monitors, and oversees the progress of a task.
  • Task Dependency: a relationship in which a task relies on another task to be performed. 
  • Cost of Task: total resources (costs, efforts, and time) necessary to invest in completing the task.
  • Start, Finish, and Completion of Task: the task’s start- and end-date, estimated by participants.
  • Task Status: The stages that a task goes through from creation to completion (open, in progress, completed).

You’d likely see these names in popular project management apps such as Wrike, Asana, Lucidchart, and Trello

Why a Proper Work Breakdown Structure Drives the Project Forward

A WBS provides stakeholders with a clear understanding of the project’s objectives, deliverables, and potential outcomes. It does so by breaking down the scope into smaller pieces. 

However, gaps in a WBS plan lead to continuous project re-plans, inadequate deadlines, unclear task descriptions, scope creep, and work overload. In contrast, a well-designed work breakdown structure provides useful guidance for cost estimation, resource allocation, and risk management.

Other advantages of WBS in project management include:

  1. Visual representation of the entire scope: Presented in the form of a tree-structure illustration, chart, or outline, WBS makes it easier to understand the scope of planned activities. 
  2. Adequate workload: Per Stripe, 81% of developers felt their personal morale was lowered due to work overload. By using WBS, PMs can clarify roles, distribute duties and responsibilities evenly, and prevent overlaps. 
  3. Improved monitoring: Approximately 25% of Wellingtone research respondents state that they spend 4 hours to 1 day, manually collecting project status info. Also, it takes 3.3 different tools just to uncover the status of a project. WBS simplifies the monitoring process. 
  4. Structure and hierarchy: WBS hierarchies add structure and allow for better planning, assigning, and monitoring. 
  5. Framework for dependency management: Poorly managed dependencies are the reason behind 23% of project failures, PMI reports. WBS process makes it easier to map task dependencies and rebalance them if needed. 
  6. Accurate cost forecasting: A lot of projects go over budget. That’s a fact. Organizing projects into smaller parts allows for a more accurate analysis of the costs needed to complete each task.

Think of WBS as the foundation of your project. An unstable foundation threatens to undermine the entire project. A stable one serves as a reliable support system.

How to Create a Work Breakdown Structure that Fits Your Project?

A WBS should help you accomplish three things — divide the scope into manageable parts, map the hierarchy of different tasks, and organize the project schedule. Decomposition might seem straightforward, but it can get challenging at times. These include:

  • Dividing the scope into too many levels 
  • The lack of detail in WBS elements prevents
  • Scheduling right away during WBS workshops
  • Having a limited vision before conducting WBS workshops

Below are some tips for coping with these challenges.

1. Summarize Your General Vision 

A WBS will be only as good as the vision behind it. If you are not sure what you really want from the project, a WBS will not adequately represent the real goals and your team will lose focus on the end result. Ultimately, 28% of projects fail due to inadequate vision. 

The same holds true for outsourcing partnerships, where you must manage people who aren’t fully familiar with your business context. As you enter into a collaboration with a vendor, you should clearly outline the vision, convey what you hope to achieve, and specify how each step contributes to the overall goal.

The goal is to translate your vision into an early set of requirements, then relay these as the planned work scope, and finally organize the planned tasks in a hierarchical order. 

2. Set Adequate Task Boundaries and Responsibility Scopes 

In a task, the boundaries indicate what is and is not included. When we establish clear boundaries, it’s easier to understand what would be done within a task. 

To set proper task boundaries, follow these tips:

  1. Identify who will be responsible for the task
  2. If it is unclear who the specific performer is, identify the next higher-ranking individual
  3. Use specific names and titles
  4. List all the necessary details within the task, break multiple steps into sub-tasks
  5. Include all necessary attachments
  6. Verify that the assignee understands the task verbally

The scope of responsibility clearly indicates what is expected from each team member. The responsibility scope is used to identify the right person for a project, assign relevant tasks to them, and delegate in case of unexpected situations. 

Consider balancing the responsibilities of your team and assigning them tasks according to their skill set. 

3. Select the Optimal WBS Construct 

You can implement one of these WBS constructs depending on your project’s goals and requirements. 

  • A deliverable-oriented WBS takes into account the project’s outcomes or deliverables. The second layers of the WBS correspond to the vendor deliverables, while the next levels represent the activities required to achieve these outcomes.
  • A process-centered WBS focuses on processes and divides the scope of the project into phases. These phases make up the first layer (e.g. requirements gathering, designing, developing, testing). As the layers progress, they resemble a WBS focused on deliverables. 

Choose WBS construct by analyzing your needs: should the major focus be on deliverables or phases? For example, software development projects would benefit more from process-oriented WBS as it displays all phases of SDLC. In projects where sequencing is not an issue, a deliverable-oriented approach may be more appropriate. 

4. Follow the 100% Rule

A WBS should include 100% of the work outlined by the project scope — not more, not less. Following this rule is crucial in terms of eliminating any work that does not contribute to the deliverable. 

This rule applies at all levels of the hierarchy: the child level’s work must equal 100% of the parent level’s work, and the WBS should not include any work that is outside the scope of the project, i.e., it cannot include more than 100% of the work.

5. Verify Your Hierarchy 

In any WBS, hierarchy is an essential component. It allows you to decompose the scope into parent and child levels so that you can understand the small tasks required to fulfill a larger general goal. Here are a few rules to follow when analyzing your hierarchy:

  • WBS will only work if divided into at least two levels
  • After decomposition, all stakeholders can clearly understand what needs to be done to reach the top layer.
  • The hierarchy illustrates the relationship of deliverables to the scope of the project.

6. Detail each Task and Deliverable 

When describing the task, use the three-W approach: 

  • Who should take action? Who are the interested parties and who has to keep track of the task?
  • What should be done? What information/materials are crucial to include?
  • Why? Why is this task important in the first place?

Make sure the deliverable plays a critical role in reaching the project’s objective and is understandable across all team members. Also, include acceptance criteria since the definition of done (DoD) may vary from person to person. 

Some tips on how to manage deliverables across the team: 

  • When talking about the deliverables, use nouns, not verbs, to avoid being distracted by activities necessary to achieve the deliverables.
  • Create the WBS deliverables with input from the people responsible for project delivery.
  • Don’t assume stakeholders know about a deliverable element if it’s not in the work breakdown structure.
  • Every WBS layer must contain a unique deliverable. 

To Conclude 

Failure to create a WBS that reflects the project scope clearly will make managing the project challenging. Using WBS helps companies avoid scheduling, efficiency, and planning issues, while their less successful competitors manage projects “the old way”. After all, a journey of complex projects begins with a small step. Start with WBS to ensure all other steps are clear. 

Looking to start a new software development project? Edvantis would be delighted to further advise you on the software development process management best practices. Contact us!

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