How to Create an Effective Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)

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Your team just got handed a massive project to overhaul the company website. No big deal; you've managed big projects before. But as you start mapping things out, your eyes grow wide. This thing has a million moving parts, tight deadlines, and high stakes.

There is new site functionality, a visual redesign, behind-the-scenes tech upgrades, and migration of old content involved. This website overhaul feels like a tangled mess. You can already envision the late nights and weekend work ahead. The whole team is starting to sweat.

Worry no longer; here is where great project management makes the difference. One solution is to break things down using a work breakdown structure.

This guide will walk you through creating an effective work breakdown structure to regain hope and complete any project, no matter how complex.

Table of Contents

What Is a Work Breakdown Structure?

A work breakdown structure (WBS) is an organized outline of a project divided into bite-sized pieces, like ingredients for a recipe or parts of a machine. It breaks down the work hierarchically from the biggest chunks (the deliverables or phases) to the smallest tasks for mapping out and managing it all.

The main components of a WBS include:

  • Project Scope: The complete set of work that needs to happen
  • Phases or Deliverables: The key stages from start to finish or tangible outcomes promised
  • Work Packages: Groups of related tasks necessary to fulfill each stage or deliverable
  • Tasks: The specific actions that need to be taken
Work Breakdown Structure

Benefits of Using a WBS

With your monster project staring you down, you may be wondering if it's really worth the effort to map everything out in a detailed WBS. After all, that's more work before you even get started, right?

Here's the thing, though putting in the sweat early on to break down the project pays off in the long run. Here are some of the key benefits:

Improved Project Planning and Organization

Creating a detailed WBS forces you to comb through the project objectives, deliverables, and tasks at the outset. This upfront planning helps identify any gaps or fuzzy areas in a low-stakes way instead of trying to figure things out later. It also allows you to spot dependencies between tasks and organize work in a logical order.

Enhanced Team Communication and Collaboration

A well-structured WBS provides a shared map that brings everyone onto the same page. Team members instantly see how their work contributes to larger goals, who they need to collaborate with, and where things stand at any given time. It is much better than everybody trying to piece things together on their own.

Better Resource Allocation and Management

A WBS enables you to allocate resources based on task requirements. No more guessing if you have the bandwidth. Plus, tracking resource usage along the way prevents unwanted surprises down the road.

Increased Project Visibility and Control

As projects drag on, it's easy to lose sight of what's happening in the trenches. With a WBS that systematically lays everything out you maintain clear visibility of where you stand. It allows you to quickly identify potential issues, troubleshoot faster, and stay on track.

Types of Work Breakdown Structures

When mapping out your WBS, you'll need to decide whether to organize tasks by project deliverable or project phase. Choosing the right approach depends on your project's duration and clarity of outcome.

The Deliverable-Based WBS structure is organized around the tangible deliverables produced for the customer. You break down the overall project scope into chunks aligned with key outcomes and results.

For example, if you were building a custom treehouse, deliverables might include:

  • Foundation
  • Flooring
  • Wall framing
  • Roof structure
  • Safety features

You would then group specific tasks under each deliverable. This works well for short-term projects with very concrete objectives and end products.

Then, we have the Phase-Based WBS. Here, you categorize tasks by project phase rather than product deliverables. Typical phases include conception, design, implementation, testing, and maintenance.

Within each phase bucket, you create work packages that house related groups of tasks to perform in that stage of the project. This approach shines for long, complex initiatives with more fluid outcomes.

Both methods work well for various project types. A hybrid model is also an option if that aligns best with your scope.

Steps to Create an Effective Work Breakdown Structure

Building a well-structured WBS is a bit like a puzzle. You can put it together in different orders, but you’ll still need a plan. Here is a commonly used process that works well:

5 Steps To Create An Effective WBS

1. Define the Project Scope and Objective

Determine the boundaries of what work will and will not be included. Dig into the project charter, statement of work, requirements, documents, and other materials to fully grasp the objective, deliverables, timelines, constraints, assumptions, and success metrics.

Identify all project stakeholders too – both those impacted internally (team members, other departments, etc.) and external groups like clients/customers. Understanding needs and expectations upfront ensures important work doesn't get missed from the WBS.

Once you understand the scope, you can give the project a distinct name as your overall level 1 objective. If you are planning to create a WBS for house construction, your level 1 could simply be called “House Construction”.

If you're wondering what is meant by levels, don't worry, we'll get into it later when it becomes more visual.

2. Identify Major Deliverables or Key Phases

Break the initiative down into manageable, logical chunks. For deliverable-focused WBS, determine the tangible outcomes promised to stakeholders. What products, services, or other results will you produce? Take notes and prioritize deliverables by importance.

If you want to use a phase-based WBS, map out the major phases from conception to completion. You may revisit the phases as the project progresses. The phases will be used to categorize work by whichever phase it falls within.

In the end, you will be left with your level 2 elements. In our house-building example, this could be the foundation, interior, and exterior of the house.

3. Decomposing into Work Packages

For each deliverable or phase, create work packages by grouping tasks and subtasks required to produce that component. The goal is to decompose work down to activities that take 8-80 hours to complete.

Make sure the work packages are mutually exclusive (no overlapping work) and collectively exhaustive (all necessary work is accounted for).

To that end:

  • Clarify the purpose, scope, and acceptance criteria for each work package.
  • Identify dependencies between packages.
  • Arrange them in a sequence based on priorities and logical flow.

After that, you should be left with your level 3 elements.

In our example, the work packages for Interior work could include elements such as plumbing, electricity, painting, and flooring.

4. List All Tasks and Subtasks

Finally, each work package still needs its specific tasks. List all tasks that belong to the respective work packages. If some tasks are very large and can be broken down into individual areas, you can even go into more detail and create subtasks.

After you have listed all tasks, these are now your level 4 elements and level 5 elements if you are working with subtasks.

If we take the electricity of a house as a work package, the tasks could be as follows:

  • Rough Electrical Installation
  • Main Service Panel Installation
  • Lighting Installation
  • Outlet and Switch Installation
  • Safety and Compliance Checks

If you would now also use subtasks, these could be as follows for main service panel installation:

  • Mount service panel (breaker box) to the wall
  • Connect main power line from the utility company to the service panel
  • Install main breaker, circuit breakers, and label circuits

5. Assign Ownership and Estimate Resources

Determine who will be responsible for delivering each work package, and associated tasks. Estimate resources needed in terms of hours, budget, and materials. The resource allocation should align with the assignments and you should identify relationships and dependencies between work packages.

6. Review and Refine

Pass the WBS draft to stakeholders for review. Incorporate their feedback on the structure, flow, resource needs, dependencies, etc.

You may also have to update as needed throughout the project lifecycle. A WBS is a living document. Keep refining it throughout the project lifecycle as things change and evolve.

Levels of a Work Breakdown Structure

WBS levels turn chaos into order by layering all dependencies of a project. Level 1 is the highest level with the most overall dependencies since it depends on all underlying levels. All additional levels depend less on other elements.

Levels Of A Work Breakdown Structure

Keeping the WBS appropriately layered ensures all necessary work is included while staying digestible. General guidelines recommend 3 to 4 levels, but you can use more as long as it stays organized for you.

If it gets too much, you can create several WBSs. For example, one for the overall structure of the project and additional ones within each department.

With 4 levels, a visual work breakdown structure could look like this:

Complete Work Breakdown Structure House Construction

The level structure is similar to the process of creating a WBS. With 4 levels they usually represent the project objective as level 1, major deliverables or phases as level 2, work packages as level 3, and the specific tasks as level 4. If you would include subtasks, they would be your level 5.

Best Practices for Creating a Work Breakdown Structure

Just like people working on the edge of a puzzle first to get the whole frame done and then working their way from one corner to the other, there are also tried and tested ways of creating a WBS that can ease the way.

Here are the key best practices.

Follow the 100% Rule

The 100% rule means that 100% of the work should be distributed at each level. An essential part is to determine the effort for each component of the lowest level which are usually the tasks or subtasks. Once the effort (e.g. in hours) is determined for all of them, you can sum the total effort for the level and calculate the percentage contribution of each task to the level. After doing so for the lowest level you can do the same for the next higher level and work your way up to level 1 which is always 100% by itself.

100 Percent Rule Work Breakdown Structure

Carefully review with team members at each level to confirm no critical tasks are missing or falsely evaluated before finalizing. Leaving holes can undermine budgets, resources, and timelines.

The 100% rule ensures that every necessary task is included in the project, highlighting the effort and importance of each part. It helps with clear planning, preventing unnecessary work, and ensuring everything is noticed.

Use a Consistent Naming Convention

A large work breakdown structure can get messy and confusing when referencing any elements outside of the visual breakdown. Create a standard naming convention for labeling WBS elements based on their levels like deliverables, work packages, and tasks. For example, use numbers for each level and position or prefix deliverables with "D" and work packages with "W" and use sequential numbers (D1, D2, and W1, W2, etc.) in front of their descriptions. Standardized formats help improve comprehension across stakeholders.

Focus on Outcomes, Not Actions

Construct WBS deliverables, phases, and work packages around desired outcomes rather than trying to detail every single action needed. Keep descriptions focused on "what" will be produced vs. "how" it will get done. Action details come later.

Apply the 8/80 Rule for Work Package Sizing

Create work packages small enough to complete in under 80 labor hours but large enough to be meaningful bodies of work (over 8 hours). This keeps components manageable yet substantial. If you do the math, that's one to ten days of effort.

Involve the Project Team in Development

Engage team members from different disciplines in the creation and refinement of the WBS. Their on-the-ground expertise can help identify missing elements and improve the accuracy of estimates and sequencing.

Define Work Package Acceptance Criteria

Outline clear criteria that must be met for each work package to be deemed complete and ready for integration. Defining quality expectations upfront minimizes misalignments down the road. For example, what standards must the deliverable meet, and who approves it?

Visualizing and Managing Your Work Breakdown Structure

Trying to manage a complex WBS as a bullet point list or across multiple spreadsheets can get messy quickly. Visualizing the structure in one place that’s accessible to everyone makes all the difference.

A tree diagram is a good place to start, as it is simple and shows the levels and dependencies well without complicating the structure.

We recommend doing this in your project management software so you don't have to keep switching back and forth between tools. If you are not yet using any project management software or would like to switch due to any restrictions with your current one, we've analyzed more than 45 providers across a number of metrics to determine the best project management software on the market.

If you want to get started on your project with the best-rated software overall, you can get a head start with ClickUp's whiteboard templates: Project Scope Template and Work Breakdown Structure Template.

Once you have completed your tree diagram and the project is about to start, you should expand your WBS by transforming it into a fitting project view.

Transforming Your WBS into Actionable Tasks

Depending on how complex and nested your project is, you should convert your tasks and possibly dependencies into a corresponding project view.

This ensures that in addition to your WBS where you can track the overall progress, you can use a project view to keep track of the progress of each individual task in greater detail. In addition, project views allow you to work out your tasks in full including all information without it becoming confusing, and it makes team collaboration much easier.

The most commonly used and offered views by project management software providers are the following:

Gantt Chart

A Gantt chart represents your projects across a timeline view with horizontal bars depicting duration. Its main difference compared to a classic timeline view is that you can create, visualize, and manage dependencies making it perfect for complex projects involving many connected tasks and teams.

Gantt Chart View Clickup

Calendar and Timeline

If you work a lot with time dependencies and less with task dependencies, a calendar or timeline view could be ideal for you. Here you can list your tasks directly in a calendar or display them on a timeline (similar to the Gantt chart layout).

Calendar View Clickup

Kanban and List

The Kanban board view works like a pinboard, usually displaying the status or priority of each task in columns. It is a very popular format due to its simple and clear structure as it only focuses on the status and tasks.

Board View Clickup

If you prefer it even simpler but more flexible, you can also organize your tasks in a classic list view and create custom fields according to your requirements.

List View Clickup

While some project views are more suited to certain project types than others, it's ultimately down to your preference. Choose a solution that makes work as easy as possible for you and your team.

Creating a WBS Dictionary

A WBS dictionary acts like an encyclopedia for your work breakdown structure. It provides detailed information on each component in your WBS. It's used to ensure that everyone involved in the project has a clear understanding of the tasks, deliverables, and scope. Think of it like a wiki your entire team can reference.

The WBS Dictionary should include the following information for each element of the WBS:

  • WBS Code: The unique identifier for each element in the WBS.
  • Element Name: The name of the task or deliverable.
  • Description: A detailed description of the work to be performed, including project deliverables and objectives.
  • Responsible Party: The individual or team responsible for completing the work.
  • Estimated Cost: The budgeted cost for completing the work.
  • Estimated Duration: The time required to complete the work.
  • Resources Required: The human resources, equipment, materials, and any other resources needed.
  • Predecessors and Successors: Information about task dependencies, indicating which tasks must be completed before others can start.
  • Acceptance Criteria: The criteria that must be met for the deliverable to be considered complete and acceptable.
  • Milestones: Key dates or milestones associated with the WBS element.
  • Constraints and Assumptions: Any constraints that may impact the completion of the work and assumptions made during the planning phase.

When crafting your WBS dictionary, focus on maintaining concise and clear descriptions. The dictionary should communicate vital information for each work item at a glance. Be brief yet thorough in descriptions. Get quickly to the point using simple language that's universally understandable.


Creating a work breakdown structure might seem like extra homework before the real work kicks off, but it's actually your secret weapon for tackling big projects.

This guide walked you through every step of the way, from breaking down the project into bite-sized tasks to the key best practices that ensure your success.

But it's not just about planning. Getting your team involved in the WBS process, focusing on the end goals, and keeping everyone in the loop are crucial steps. With the right project management software at your side and a detailed WBS dictionary, you can ensure that everyone is pulling in the same direction.

So, here's the gist: Creating a WBS isn't just another task on your to-do list; it's setting the foundation for project success. At this point, you're ready to tackle any project, turning complex challenges into a straightforward structure.

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