The Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is a mythic document in Project Management. Every textbook reminds us that the WBS is the foundation of the project plan. But what the heck is it? Perhaps appropriately, I’ve found a lot of mythology on this topic. So let’s talk about what it is and how to build it.

Simply put, the WBS is an outline of all the major deliverables that will be produced as part of your project. The key is that we are talking about the nouns, the (mostly) tangible objects that will be created through project work. Those items about which we can say, “once we have all of these things, the project is complete.”

Most people have trouble with this concept at first. We have been trained to think in terms of the activities, that is, the verbs, rather than the deliverables or nouns.

There are several ways to create the WBS. If you’re finding that you are focused on those verbs, then do a sticky note exercise. Write one activity each on a bunch of stickies. Then find a nice blank wall and arrange those verbs so that you can see which deliverable should result from each set of activities. This is a bottom-up approach.

Another approach is to begin at the top. Think about the largest categories of deliverables. Usually these consist of things like:

  • Research
  • Design
  • Construction
  • Documentation
  • Tests/Quality
  • Project Management

Then decompose those major deliverables into one or two smaller categories. Thus, under Design, we may have both Database Design and Website Design. The goal is to keep the WBS fairly high level. I don’t like to see WBS documents which are longer than one or two pages (which is related to another topic: keep your projects small and manageable).

However, you do need to make sure that 100% of the project-related work is represented on the WBS. For example, say you forgot to list Documentation as a deliverable but you know that there will be documents that must be written. In that situation, the WBS would not be an accurate reflection of the work and all the future project management documents would underestimate the resource needs of that part of the project.

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