Experienced facilitators understand both the challenge and value of getting a group to focus on the same thing at the same time. For most project-related meetings, Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) provides a simple method to increase focus. According to Goldblatt’s Triple Constraint Theory, mitigate risk through focused discussion on the cost, schedule, and scope of discrete portions of the project rather than the entire project at once.

Work Breakdown Structure represents a method that groups the project’s distinct work elements to help organize and define the total work scope of the project. While many experts suggest that a Work Breakdown Structure element may be a product, data, a service, or any combination; at a detailed level strive to use verbs, terms that represent the work and activity that needs to be completed. Work Breakdown Structure also provides framework for detailed cost estimating and control along with providing guidance for schedule development and control. Additionally WBS enables the project manager or product owner to dynamically revise and update as needed.

Each descending level of the Work Breakdown Structure represents an increasingly detailed definition of the project work. Note this illustrative Work Breakdown Structure for building a house. Break work down into separate elements, the total sum of which represents all the work necessary to build the house.

Work Breakdown Structure Increases Focus and Reduces Scope Creep

Work Breakdown Structure – House Construction

In summary, the Work Breakdown Structure:

  • Ensures you have defined the significant aspects that make up the project
  • Provides a framework for organizing and managing project scope
  • Provides feedback for planning and controlling costs and scheduling

Work Breakdown Structure Benefits for Portfolio or Program Management

When you have numerous projects being performed simultaneously, each project competes for the limited resources available. The Work Breakdown Structure enables you to review project details and distinguish one project’s needs from others within your organization. Therefore, you are better enabled to identify resource requirements and allocate resources more effectively.

Preparing a Work Breakdown Structure

Here are some suggested steps for preparing a Work Breakdown Structure:

  1. Always start with the end in mind, the project deliverable. Identify final project products necessary for achieving project success.
  2. Identify the major aspects necessary for project completion and success.
    • These are items that by themselves do not complete the project need but, when combined, make up a successful project
    • Examples shown previously include structural, electrical, and plumbing
  3. Build out additional levels of detail for managing and controlling the project requirements.
    • Remember that each project is different, thus each WBS will be different
    • WBS’s from previous projects can be used as templates, but remember that the management philosophy and the level of details may be different from project to project
    • Understand your controlling and reporting requirements
  4. Review and refine the Work Breakdown Structure until the stakeholders agree with the level of project planning and reporting.
    • Remember that no matter how detailed your WBS is, there are planning and reporting restrictions created by a WBS.
    • See below for an example of the detail you need contrasted with what management may need for reviews.
      Work Breakdown Structure Increases Focus and Reduces Scope Creep

      Work Breakdown Structure – Management Needs

In developing a Work Breakdown Structure, realize that there are multiple ways to develop a WBS for any given project. Some ways might be better than others, but the two most important items apply to both:

  1. The Work Breakdown Structure must contain all approved scope and
  2. The Project Manager must develop the Work Breakdown Structure to reflect the way you intend to manage the project.

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Facilitation Expert

Terrence Metz, CSM, PSPO, CSPF, is the Managing Director of MG RUSH Facilitation Training and Coaching, the acknowledged leader in structured facilitation training. His FAST Monthly Facilitation blog features over 300 articles on facilitation skills and tools aimed at helping others lead faster, more productive meetings and workshops that yield higher quality decisions. His clients include Agilists, Scrum teams, program and project managers, senior officers, and the business analyst community among numerous private and public companies and global corporations. As an undergraduate of Northwestern University (Evanston, IL) and MBA graduate from NWU’s Kellogg School of Management, his professional experience has focused on process improvement and product development. He continually aspires to make it easier for others to succeed.

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