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By Anton van den Berg

What is a work breakdown structure? (WBS.)

A work breakdown structure is the backbone from which other important project management documents are developed.

The name is quite daunting, but I can assure you that a work breakdown structure is simple once you have grasped the concept. And the benefits of taking the time to do a work breakdown structure for your project are numerous and powerful.

So what is it? What does it do? How can it help me?

Projects and work breakdown structures.

Projects are complex. But you can simplify any project by breaking it down into smaller and smaller components. Approach your project in the following way.

  • Can I break up my project into smaller (logical) pieces. E.g. if you bake a cake you can separate preparation, baking and decorating quite easily.
  • For each of these pieces, are there logical pieces inside of them? E.g. in preparation there are 2 other pieces – wet ingredients and dry ingredients that has to be mixed separately (depending on the recipe of course)
  • Carry on until it stops making sense or all the pieces have been broken up into elements.
  • If I ignore outside influences, what do I – and my team – have to do to achieve success in each of the lowest pieces? E.g. all the dry ingredients have to be mixed BEFORE the wet ingredients. As a general rule, you will now be in the task or actions level where stuff has to done by people.
  • If it becomes clear that you may have missed a piece (measure the ingredients) simply add them in on the level that makes most sense.


The benefits of a work breakdown structure.

Once you have broken down the project into smaller and smaller components you will notice that what you have accomplished is astonishing.

  • You have planned the work that would be required to achieve the overall project goal in a structured and logical manner.
  • You have determined what has to be done in some sequence (e.g. measure before mix.)
  • You can see where tasks can occur simultaneously (e.g. switch on the oven and gather ingredients.
  • You know that there are dependencies (e.g. you cannot pour the dough into the baking pan before you have greased the pan.
  • You have an idea of the time (work and duration), quantity of resources (ingredients, equipment and people) and sequence of events – I would call that a basic schedule with time and cost management capability.
  • You know what can be measured – when, where, who… - I would call that a quality and milestone plan. You may even want to base your communications plan on this.

Is it worth it to take the time to do a work breakdown structure?


  • I know this sounds like stuff you have heard of before, but if you do your work breakdown structure early enough (it’s never too late) in your project, you will be able to isolate the areas that you and your team are not too clear about. You can now focus on these areas to gain the knowledge or information required to properly plan – This becomes your risk log.
  • I promise you just knowing what you don’t know, is justification enough to do the exercise.
  • Your work breakdown structure becomes the BACKBONE from which other important project management documents and tools are developed. This includes:
    • Project charter
    • Scope of work
    • Schedule
    • Resources plan
    • Communications plan
    • Quality plan
    • Risk / Issue management plan
    • Cost management plan.
  • If the WBS is used as a basis for developing your project management infrastructure, you will discover that you have an integrated management plan.

And that will impress your boss!

The most important benefit that the WBS provides a project team is - - - - UNDERSTANDING!

Now you and your team simply have to wake up, show up and deliver!

Anton van den Berg

Anton van den Berg is a professional program and project management practitioner with several years of management experience on various levels and in different capacities in a range of industries and disciplines.

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