Work Breakdown Structure

Don't Feel Overwhelmed.

Chunk It Down...

Feeling overwhelmed by the apparent size, challenge and complexity of your next project?

The start of the emotional roller coaster as project manager…

My reflex action - produce a Work Breakdown Structure, works for me every time!


Surprising then that many organisations ignore this and squeeze their projects into “standardised” structures. Every project is unique and deserves to be treated so.

Producing a Work Breakdown Structure, or WBS, is a process of continuously chunking down an immense task or objective into its constituent and ultimately its component parts. Think of a WBS as something similar to a fully exploded view of a motor vehicle, for example.

It's a logical thought process, that inherently provides the understanding needed to stem the anxiety of feeling overwhelmed. Ah! It also happens to be the foundation for planning, defining and then controlling your project. VERY IMPORTANT!

Why not share the process with the rest of your Team? Working through the WBS exercise as a Group is a very efficient way to get a common understanding of how to tackle the challenge. A problem shared ..... and all that.

The Tree of Knowledge (Project Scope)

Think of your project's Work Breakdown Structure as a huge tree diagram.

You start at the base, with the project scope's main objective, for example 'put on a rock concert'.

Next break this down a level to what 'putting on a Rock Concert' will entail, for example:

  • marketing
  • venue preparation
  • event management
  • the performance

Next, break each of these down another level:


  • promotion & advertising
  • merchandising
  • ticket sales
  • post-concert media

Venue Preparation:

  • Site location
  • Staging
  • Viewing Areas
  • Amenities
  • Access/Egress
  • Media Facilities
  • Power & Utility Infrastructure


And so on, and so on...EASY! and can be quite fun.

But how far do you go?

One simple rule of thumb that serves well:

Continue with your Work Breakdown Structure until you get to your FIRST 'verb'; like 'install stage light fittings', or 'hire media centre furniture', or 'train security staff'. Then STOP.

TIP! Also use some common sense: You want to stop immediately before a level of detail where the resulting activity/task will not take longer than a project reporting period, and can be estimated realistically in terms of 'time-to-complete'.

The WBS should only concern itself with tangible deliverables: Physical things that must be delivered in order to meet the project’s objectives.

Be prepared though! For huge complex projects, this last level of the WBS could be 10 or more below the top level. The tree diagram gets quite a visual challenge. You need a large piece of paper to see it all!

One Practical Method...

Large clear walls have served us well in the past. Instead of trying to fit your WBS onto a large piece of paper... think of the rework consequences if you decide something is in the wrong place.

...consider finding a flat wall clear of obstructions and windows.

Get some packs of coloured Post-Its, and use one Post-It for each element of your Work Breakdown Structure. If you need to juggle some elements around, you can, very easily! Post-It planning starts here.

Consider using a different colour Post-It for each vertical branch of a WBS. This helps visually when space starts to run out, and reduces the need to draw connecting lines all over the wall - which won't make you popular.

Should you require to mark joining-lines between Post-Its, whilst using a wall, decorator's lining paper serves well as a backdrop, or even Magic Whiteboard rolls.

Now you've spent some quality time creating your Work Breakdown Structure, it's time to move on and put the wall back to how you found it.

Don't throw away your Post-Its, WHATEVER YOU DO! The ones forming the most detailed level of each WBS branch, will be needed again, so keep them safely. Using the panoramic or standard camera functions of mobile phones or tablets allow you to “photocopy” the wall.


 Organising your Work Breakdown Structure


Each Post-It, or node, of your WBS gets numbered in a hierarchical manner.
Label the top level of the WBS, 'putting on a Rock Concert' as 0.

The next level down, number each node in the Work Breakdown Structure sequentially: 1, 2, 3, 4...

The next level down in each branch, number sequentially like so: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, ... 1.7

And so on...
1.1.1, 1.1.2, 1.1.3, 1.1.4 ....

And so on...,,, .....

You get the picture by now.

Every Post-It, or node, has its own unique identifier representing its position in the Work Breakdown Structure.


Because of the immense size of the WBS for larger projects, it's usually not practical to produce a printed tree diagram WBS for the entire project, however it is important to document the WBS.

The most detailed levels of the WBS get used as the basis for the key activity list, higher levels of the Work Breakdown Structure often get used as summary reporting levels for the project.


How to document a WBS?

How do you document a massive tree diagram?

Print it on a large piece of paper?

Tried that! Not as successful as it may seem.

Even with A0 plotters this is impractical. Having tried all sorts of ways over the years, some Scheduling Software packages allow you to create a WBS tree diagram, yet from a practical perspective, it’s best left within the scheduling software, so long as you can view and navigate it. Here, the mobile phone “photocopy” also serves well as a timeless backup reference of the original.

Without a suitable software package, try using a good, old, reliable spreadsheet table or paper based equivalent. A brief outline of what it may look like is shown below.

The IMPORTANT thing: a record should exist of the project scope as defined at a point in time. This is needed to track change as part of the project management control process.



A couple of recommendations...

Producing the Work Breakdown Structure as a Group Exercise could form part of initial Team Building sessions, and brings a breadth and depth of experience from others who will be part of the project team - A GREAT BENEFIT! A Group Exercise is also a great opportunity to get the WBS completed efficiently and obtain needed buy-in from your closest team members. Getting the Work Breakdown Structure right allows you to better organise and delegate the subsequent project definition and planning activities, with clarity.


Facilitated WBS exercises are also worth consideration. The benefit of using an impartial experienced outsider who is able to challenge and guide the Group towards a suitable conclusion is very often overlooked. At the beginning of a project, the more experience you can draw upon the better your planning and definition will be, and the lower the level of risk; boosting the likelihood of a SUCCESSFUL project.