How To Create a Work Breakdown Structure

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No matter how experienced or skilled you are, any time you tackle a difficult project, it can be easy to get overwhelmed.  Even the most qualified and well-equipped teams can have a hard time determining where to get started, how to progress through a project, and how to determine whether or not real progress is being made.  That’s where creating a work breakdown structure is a must do.  In the guide that follows, we will define what a work breakdown structure is, and explain how to create one.

Work Breakdown Structure

Creating a Work Breakdown Structure


In the fields of project management and system engineering, the term work breakdown structure has a very specific meaning.  A work breakdown structure is a deliverable and succinctly packaged decomposition of a project into smaller, more approachable components.  You can think of a work breakdown structure chart as an overhead map of an entire project, with a structured outline to help a team manage and achieve goals.

Since the goal of creating a work breakdown structure is to make a project more manageable, all work is broken down into deliverables, which can be concretely assigned to specific departments and subsequently individual workers.  By focusing on deliverables, a good work breakdown structure not only organizes a project into subsequent parts but makes it easier for a team to understand how those parts work together and account for when each deliverable goal has been achieved.

Work Breakdown Structure Hierarchies

The key to creating a good work breakdown structure is understanding the important role of hierarchies in project management.  A work breakdown structure starts from the top-level, by determining what final deliverable needs to be realized for a project to be complete.  From that top project level, a work breakdown structure chart should be created to assign specific tasks to specific departments, each responsible for deliverable elements.  Within each department, further decomposition occurs until finally, each individual worker assigned to a project has a specific deliverable associated with their work that will contribute to a project’s completion.

What’s most important in understanding why this project management approach is so useful is understanding the power of hierarchies.  When work can be broken down into subsequent deliverables and assigned within a system’s hierarchical structure, each subsequent level of that structure can become responsible for specific outcomes.  In the business realm, budgeting makes it most useful to assign deliverables to specific departments, but the exact breakdown of where each deliverable is assigned is less important than a fundamental understanding of the utility of a hierarchical approach.  

If so far this guide has seemed theory heavy and hard to digest, don’t worry.  We will be sharing some specific tips on how to create a work breakdown structure, and by the end of this guide you should have a more in-depth understanding of how to utilize this project management tool to maximize the efficacy and efficiency of your own projects.  To illustrate the principle of hierarchies and examine how they can help structure a project, we will walk through a hypothetical example project.

Project Example to Show How to Create a Work Breakdown Structure

For this example project, assume your team has been tasked with producing a comprehensive safety training manual for new employees entering your company.  You have been asked to make sure that the manual includes safety information for every department, as well as general safety information, and you have been allocated team members from every department to help you create a comprehensive manual.  But how to create a work breakdown structure for this project? Here are a few steps you can follow.

  1.  Identify the Top-Level Deliverable Which Will Signify Project Completion

In our example, it’s pretty obvious that the deliverable your team will need to produce is a physical training manual.  But for some projects, this step isn’t so easy.  When project goals get more abstract and objectives are not directly tied to a deliverable from the start, it can be more challenging to determine what deliverables will need to be completed to signify a project’s completion.  But in order for our hierarchical model to be useful, it’s absolutely essential that your team identifies a top-level deliverable that, when completed, will mark a project’s successful finish.

In order to determine this type of top-level deliverable in more complicated situations, ask yourself, what is this project really trying to produce?  How can abstract goals be quantified, and repackaged into a measurable product that can be concretely completed?  If you can’t answer these questions, make sure to get clarification about your project objectives, since finding a top- level deliverable is crucial to breaking down a project throughout a hierarchical structure.  Again, in our example, the top-level deliverable is clearly the safety training manual your team has been tasked with producing.  

  1.  Break A Top-Level Deliverable Into Department Oriented Deliverables

In a business environment, it makes the most sense to break top-level deliverables into department-specific deliverables that will add up to your final product.  Again, other hierarchies can be appropriate, but relying on previously established departments is a smart move to make budgeting and accountability easier.  In the case of our example safety training manual, the top-level manual could be broken into safety tips for each department.  Again, this is a straightforward example, but illustrates the utility of relying on hierarchies well.

If your project has more abstract deliverables involved, it may not be as easy to assign or determine deliverables that are appropriate for each department.  In breaking down deliverables, ask yourself, “what parts will I need to make this whole?”  In our example, it’s clear that we will need safety tips from each department in order to know how to create a work breakdown structure chart.  Then when assigning deliverables, ask “which department would be most capable of knowledgeably completing this deliverable?”  If your team has been assembled well, the answer to this question will usually be somewhat straightforward as well.

  1.  Continue To Breakdown Subsequent Deliverables Until You Reach the “Nth” Level

After you have broken down your top-level deliverable into department specific objectives, it’s time to further break things down until you reach the individual or “Nth” level of decomposition.  To do so, you first have to break down each department specific deliverable into its subsequent parts.  For our safety manual example, it may be useful to break each department’s safety tips down by equipment, work area, or task; each department is likely different, and each deliverable will have a different number of subsequent parts that it can be decomposed into.

The key is to keep breaking things down until you have reached the “Nth” level in each department, or until each individual working in a department has a specific deliverable that they are assigned and accountable for.  In our example, each department may break down it’s safety tips by common task within that department, and then each task into subsequent techniques required to complete that task.  Depending on the size of the team and the length of the project, the “Nth” level may either be at the individual task, or at the individual techniques used to complete each task.

When determining the “Nth” level that you will need to deconstruct a project into, its important to be honest about how much work an individual can handle doing well to contribute to the final deliverable.  In our manual example, it may be possible for a small team of department heads to each take on all of the safety information for their department, and there may not be a very extensive decomposition.  But in many projects, each deliverable will need to be extensively broken down.  Keep breaking down deliverables until you reach a unit of work that one individual can do well in the given amount of time for your project, and you’ve reached the “Nth” level of decomposition.

Putting it All Together: How To Create a Work Breakdown Structure

When following our example project above on how to create a work breakdown structure for your own project, it’s critically important to keep the goals of a work breakdown structure in mind.  A successful work breakdown structure provides a guide for completing a project by illustrating what each level of a hierarchy must accomplish.  It organizes projects into accomplishable parts, and gives a team a way to start tackling seemingly unsurmountable goals.  If you feel that you are moving away from these overarching principles, take a step back and try to construct your work breakdown structure chart as a roadmap, not just a decomposition of tasks.

As long as you are keeping those principles in mind, the actual process of creating a work breakdown structure chart isn’t too complicated.  Begin by identifying your top-level deliverable, and then break that into department assignable component deliverables.  Continue breaking down into smaller deliverables until you’ve reached the “Nth” level, meaning you’ve reached a deliverable small enough for an individual to accomplish.  The more you work at it and the more you practice, the better you will get at utilizing this project management tool.  For now, jump right in, and do your best to start breaking down your projects into more manageable parts with a work breakdown structure.