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November 19, 2006 16 comments so far

Creating a Work Breakdown Structure

Once we know what we want to achieve (our goals), we can start thinking about how to achieve it (our work plan). In my opinion, the best way to create a work plan is to develop a work breakdown structure (WBS): It is a simple, but powerful tool helping you to keep track of your goals.

A simple work breakdown structure (WBS) looks much like a company's organizational chart: The project itself is displayed centrally at the top of the chart, the first level of work packages is organized from left to right below the project and the second level from top to bottom below the first level activities. If you need a more complex WBS you have to organize it more like a tree which has the advantage that it scales (in terms of number of outline levels), but has (at least in my opinion) the disadvantage that it is not as easy to draw and to conceive anymore.

Example work breakdown structure

A WBS is typically constructed from top to bottom: You start with the project and then add the major phases or parts of work of the project at the first level. Afterwards you split up these top level work packages into smaller, more manageable ones. In a way, this approach is quite similar to the creative process of drawing a mind map, but this one is much more about structuring than about brainstorming.

It is very important that you do not think about dates when creating a WBS, because this is one of the major advantages of this tool over a schedule (GANTT): The dimension of time does not distract you from the content of your project, i.e., from you project's goals. Other advantages of the WBS are:

  • Creates an intuitive, easy to understand overview of the project's content
  • Can and should be used as a content controlling tool: Started work packages are crossed out once, finished ones twice
  • Can be used to show your project's progress to the customer (content-wise, i.e., without getting into the dates discussion)

Finally, it is good practice for larger projects (for small ones it is probably oversized) to use the first work package "column" to group all project management tasks together. This way, you cannot forget about important things such as a project kick-off or not so beloved activities like project documentation... ;-).