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What is a work breakdown structure?

WBS in Miro

What is a work breakdown structure?

A work breakdown structure (WBS) is a project management tool used to visually represent all the tasks associated with a project in a hierarchical structure. The main purpose of a WBS is to break down project deliverables. It gives project managers a solid foundation on which to create the project schedule and identify the best way to reach the project goals.

A WBS is especially helpful for teams managing large projects, as it divides the project into smaller and more manageable components. This makes it easier to visualize all the project elements.

As a result, project managers can find the most efficient way to complete the project. They can identify the critical tasks, effectively allocate resources, and even create a phased schedule of activities to streamline project completion.

Why is a WBS important in a project?

Let’s take a look at some reasons why a work breakdown structure is helpful in project management.

It helps manage complex work

It can be hard to track all the tasks and activities in a complex project. There are often conflicting deadlines, cross-functional teams working together, and various tasks happening simultaneously.

This is where a work breakdown structure can help.

A WBS allows you to break down a complex project in a simple way. You can easily see all the tasks involved in the project and how they contribute to the project deliverables. As a result, you can manage large projects more effectively and execute tasks more efficiently.

It helps enhance cross-functional collaboration

A WBS outlines all your project tasks in a single location. Everyone working on the project can see what the project involves, who’s responsible for each task, and when the tasks are due.

This is a great way to boost collaboration among cross-functional teams, as the entire project team can visualize all the tasks no matter what department they’re from. For instance, if anyone has any questions or concerns about a part of the project, they can simply take a look at the WBS to see who they should contact.

It helps improve resource allocation

Resource allocation is a key element of project success. Without it, you might not have the time, budget, or capacity to complete the project as planned.

With a WBS, you can allocate your resources efficiently because you have total clarity of all the project work. You can estimate costs, create timelines, and review capacity all in one location. This means you can effectively plan and structure your project, giving you a better chance of project success.

What are the 3 levels of a work breakdown structure?

A WBS breaks tasks down into different levels based on their hierarchy in the project. These levels allow project managers to categorize the work and visualize all the project tasks.

The upper levels tend to reflect the major deliverable work areas of the project, while the lower levels provide detail and focus for the project. Although most work breakdown structures have three levels, you can use as few or as many as you need.

We’ll use software development to show you how levels work in a WBS. In this example scenario, the software team is developing a new chatbot for their website.

Level one

The top level of the WBS outlines the project’s title. In this example, the top level is “developing new software for customer chatbots,” All the other project elements sit underneath this title.

You can also add information about the project scope to support the title. While this is not a necessity, it can help provide context. For example, you could outline the project goal, the final deliverable, any customer expectations, and so on.

Level two

The second level of a WBS sits under the title. It outlines the main phases of the project by breaking down the different categories of work.

When developing a new chatbot for customers, categories might include the following:

  • User flow

  • Fetching a response

  • API integrations

  • CRM integrations

  • Front-end system

Level two ensures that the project team covers all the necessary work areas to deliver the final deliverable.

Level three

The lowest level breaks the key areas of work down into smaller and more manageable tasks. Under the “user flow” category, the WBS could include the following individual tasks:

  • Understanding customer needs

  • Creating a conversation diagram

  • Writing conversation scenarios

  • Creating a chatbot voice to reflect your brand

  • Testing your conversation flow

Project teams can also use our User Flow Template to better understand how to implement user flow into new chatbot software.

This is a very simplified example of how the different levels within a work breakdown structure work. The exact structure varies from project to project, depending on the project size, your project objective, and your deliverables.

For instance, if you have a more complex project with multiple outputs, your project might have additional levels. It’s up to you to identify the best structure for your WBS based on the project you’re planning.

Creating a work breakdown structure

Now that we know what a WBS is and why it’s important, let’s outline some key steps for creating a WBS of your own.

1. Start with the project title

First, you need to add your project title to the work breakdown structure. This isn’t a difficult or time-consuming task, but it’s an important element of the WBS. It shows your project team what the project is about and what you hope to achieve.

You can also add some supporting information to provide context for the diagram. For example, if your project title is “launch new product,” you might also add information about who the product is for and why you’re creating it.

2. Add your deliverables

A WBS always works backward from your deliverables. You define what you want to achieve, then use the WBS to identify the tasks, activities, and resources you need to get there.

This means you need to create clearly defined project deliverables. To do this, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do you want your project to achieve?

  • How will you define the project’s success?

  • Are you delivering internal or external deliverables?

  • How does the project align with company KPIs?

After answering these questions, you should have a clear idea of what your project deliverables should be. You can then add these deliverables to the WBS, where they’ll sit underneath the title as the next step down in the hierarchy.

3. Split your deliverables into separate components

Now that you have your key deliverables in place, it’s time to categorize them into separate work areas. These areas help organize the project and make it easier to identify the specific tasks required to complete it.

Let’s use an example to demonstrate how this categorization works.

Imagine that your project deliverable involves creating a new product to meet customer needs. To achieve this deliverable, you’d break it down into the following areas of work:

  • Market research

  • Competitive analysis

  • Concept development

  • Product planning

  • Product prototyping

These top-level components outline the areas of work that need to be completed to achieve this deliverable. From there, you can add specific tasks within each of these key areas — which leads us nicely to the next step.

4. Identify tasks within each key component

Each avenue of a WBS has a series of tasks to help you achieve the project deliverables. These tasks sit within each area of work, allowing you to continually categorize your work and better organize your project.

Let’s say that one of your areas of work is “market research,” Under this subheading, your WBS would outline the following tasks:

  • Create a market research plan

  • Perform market research

  • Collect the relevant data

  • Analyze the data

  • Identify how the data can inform product development

5. Pinpoint dependencies

Dependencies outline the relationships between tasks. They usually become obvious once you start looking for them. However, it can take more work to find them in a large or complex project.

This is where a WBS is helpful. The structure of a WBS allows you to look through everything at once, making it easier to spot the tasks that depend on each other.

To find dependencies in your WBS, you need to understand the four different types. These types are as follows:

  • Finish-to-start. Task A must be completed before Task B begins.

  • Finish-to-finish. Task A must be completed before Task B can be finished.

  • Start-to-start. Task A must start before Task B can start.

  • Start-to-finish. Task A must start before Task B can be finished.

For example, let’s say that Task A involves performing market research about customer preferences for product development. Task B, which involves designing the new product, can’t start until Task A is complete.

This means that Task B is dependent on Task A — an example of a finish-to-start dependency.

When you’ve identified your dependencies, you might want to add all these tasks to a separate diagram to keep track of them. Miro’s PERT Diagram Template can guide you through this process.

A program evaluation and review technique (PERT) diagram allows you to visualize all the dependencies in your project. It also helps you spot potential bottlenecks ahead of time, meaning that you can put preventative measures in place.

You can also use a PERT diagram to identify the critical path, which outlines the longest string of tasks that must be performed to complete the project.

6. Assign tasks

You can now assign tasks to the project participants. This shows your team members what they’ll need to do and when they’ll need to do it (when the project goes live).

When assigning tasks, it’s important to consider capacity. If teams don’t have the capacity to complete the work, you may need to rearrange tasks or allocate additional resources.

For example, let’s say that the WBS requires the marketing team to create an ad campaign. They currently have three team members to do this work, but it’s a big undertaking. To get the project delivered on time, you may need to hire a new employee for the marketing team.

If you’re using Miro to manage your WBS, you can use cards to assign tasks to team members.

7. Share the WBS with the relevant stakeholders

When all the tasks, activities, and deliverables are in the WBS, you can share the WBS with any relevant stakeholders. These individuals could be any high-level management or external stakeholders who need to approve the WBS before you can move forward.

You can also share the WBS with the project team so they can see what the project involves and the part they play in it. When everyone is happy with the WBS, you can use it as a foundation for other important project elements, such as creating the project schedule, performing a risk assessment, outlining the project budget, and allocating resources.

Use Miro to create your next project work breakdown structure

A work breakdown structure is an efficient way to visualize your entire project. It defines your project outputs, shows the hierarchical outline of the project tasks, and puts you in a good position to create a successful project schedule.

Use Miro’s free Work Breakdown Structure Template to create and update your own WBS in a matter of clicks.

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