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Here Are The Ways Work Breakdown Structure Can Help Your Team

Here Are The Ways Work Breakdown Structure Can Help Your Team

By Josh Spilker

Unless you have taken a specialized Project Management course or have received some great on the job training, you probably don’t know what I’m talking about when I mention Work Breakdown Structure.

Does this help? It’s a deliverable oriented hierarchical decomposition of work to be executed by the project team.

Ok, what?

Work breakdown structure is like a rare bird–you may have seen one and not known what it was exactly. Or you might have been toiling away all this time without the aid of one of the most important tools in any project managers’ toolbox.

What Is Work Breakdown Structure Exactly?

Simply put, a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is a way of breaking up a project into small, manageable units.

But of course nothing ever is quite that simple. A Work Breakdown Structure isn’t just a straight forward list of tasks. Instead of including every single action that will need to be taken over the course of the project, the WBS is focused on outcomes.

It should identify the deliverables that make up the project, some of which will require multiple tasks to produce. Only once the WBS is completed, and the overall structure of the project is mapped out, is it time to get down to the nitty gritty of task lists and Gantt charts.

Although Work Breakdown Structure is an immensely useful tool, it can get pretty complex and time consuming, which is why most project managers use some form of project management software in the process.

Work Breakdown Structure is Your Map

So why is having a Work Breakdown Structure so useful?

Essentially, it gives you a map of the project before you begin work on it. You wouldn’t set out on a cross country roadtrip without a map (or GPS), so why would you do it with a job?

Just like a journey is broken up into smaller trips, the project is broken down into key deliverables, which are then themselves broken down sub-deliverables. Those can then be assigned to a department or team, and they are broken down again until a single person has a task.

This creates a kind of flow chart or tree diagram, showing the path towards your final destination: a completed project.

Having this sort of plan or outline for a project allows everything to run a lot more smoothly. Because you have a comprehensive overview of the project, it becomes much easier to create a schedule and allocate the budget. You can clearly see everything that needs to be done and which tasks are dependant on others.

Having a well-made Work Breakdown Structure helps the project manager identify potential risks and deal with them preemptively.

If part of the Work Breakdown Structure is poorly defined, it signals a risk of some type. It could be unclear scope, misunderstanding of the task, or something else. Because you prepare the WBS before the project gets underway, you can prevent future problems by reworking the Work Breakdown Structure to better define any uncertain elements.

And once the project is underway, if any task is delayed, the Work Breakdown Structure will clearly show how this will effect other aspects of the project and allow the project manager to adjust the schedule accordingly.

How Can I Make Sure That My Work Breakdown Structure Achieves All Of This?

The Work Breakdown Structure needs to be designed with input from everyone involved in working on the project. If the project manager creates the Work Breakdown Structure without help of team members, then key tasks could be missed.

Another important part of preparing a Work Breakdown Structure is creating a WBS dictionary.

Yes, a dictionary. Or call it a glossary if you want.

Basically, it’s just a way to capture any term and acronyms that may be specific to that project. This could live on your company wiki or collaboration software.

In it, the dictionary will include definitions of terms and acronyms included in the diagram. It will also go into further detail about the scope of each element of the WBS.

The term dictionary prevents the possibility of overlap between elements which can cause confusion around what each team is responsible for and the budget for each deliverable.

For instance, you don’t want your design team and your marketing team to create separate assets for a campaign. That wastes time and resources.

Everyone needs to be clear on what their responsibilities and assignments are for the project to be successful.

The dictionary should ensure that anyone looking at the Work Breakdown Structure, regardless of how inexperienced they are with the subject matter, can understand it fully.

What Sort Of Projects Can You Use A Work Breakdown Structure For?

Let’s say you need to build a website for your company.

The finished website is the key deliverable. This can be broken down into the sub-deliverables of design, content, and development.

Each of those will be broken down into even smaller deliverables such as creating graphics, laying out pages, writing copy, securing a domain, testing, and much more.

Or maybe your assignment is to create an advertising campaign for a new product your company is launching. You could break that down into the different mediums you’ll be using: print, television, and online.

Online would then be broken down into categories like social media, video, email campaigns, sponsored content, etc.

For a big project like this, your WBS is going to become pretty extensive and time consuming. This is where your project management software comes into play.

A Work Breakdown Structure can be used for any type of project, from developing a dating app to creating an advertising campaign for sports socks and everything in between.

Work Breakdown Structure can even be useful for projects where you’re the sole team member.

A couple of years ago, before I’d even heard of WBS, I oversaw the publication of a book from conception to soliciting writers to design to printing to marketing and distribution.

I made a lot of mistakes and delays along the way that could have been easily prevented. Let me tell you, the whole process would have been far more streamlined and efficient if I’d made a Work Breakdown Structure for the project with the specific tasks and deliverables.

What Do You Need To Actually Build A Work Breakdown Structure?

While it’s possible to build a Work Breakdown Structure using nothing more than a pen and paper, it’ll take a lot less effort if you use the most up-to-date technology.

This is especially important if the people you’re working with are not in the same office or even the same country as you.

Project management software allows teams spread all over the globe to communicate and collaborate on brainstorming ideas for a project’s WBS.

And once you’ve broken the project down into deliverables and sub-deliverables, you can use your project management software to automatically create task lists with dependent subtasks.

These can be assigned to specific team members, so that everyone know what they’re supposed to be doing, when their deadlines are, and will be notified when their tasks are ready to begin work on or when they’re running behind schedule.

You can also easily generate Gantt charts for a clear, visual timeline showing the duration and dependencies of every task and who they’re assigned to.

And because you’re using project management software this will only take a few minutes rather than the endless hours you would spend laying it out by hand or in Excel.

Because your project management software is cloud-based, everyone in the team can view it on their own device and any changes they make will automatically appear to everyone else.

Plus, if someone changes the duration or deadline of one task, everything following on from there will be automatically adjusted, saving even more time!

Then, if you’re ever assigned a similar project, you can use the files you generated for this project to create a template, making it much quicker to build your next Work Breakdown Structure.

Work Breakdown Structure is a Valuable Tool for Any Project Manager

Having a WBS, makes it easier to look at the entire project for a bird’s eye view, while also making it easy to drill down into specific elements. And once the project is underway, the WBS can be used to create necessary documents like budgets and Gantt charts almost instantaneously. Now that you have a better understanding of the ins and outs of how WBS works, try using it for your next project. Trust me, it will be an entirely new experience and you’ll never want to go back to the way you used to do things.