The best project managers can break down the work including its tasks, activities and deliverables associated with the project into manageable chunks of information. This allows the team members to fully understand the what, when, why and how of the desired results at each phase of the project.

Definition of Work Breakdown Structure

This is where the work breakdown structure comes in handy. To paraphrase the definition in the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), a work breakdown structure is the hierarchical decomposition of the deliverables associated with the work of the project team. It is a visual representation of the project’s broad scope broken down into manageable sections such that each level on the structure provides team members with more detail and definition of the deliverables.

The creation of a work breakdown structure requires the active participation of all the members of the project team as their work will be analysed at each level. The process involves these three main steps:

  • Identification of the major functional deliverables;
  • Subdivision of these deliverables into sub-deliverables (i.e., smaller systems); and
  • Determination of the match between the members and the specific work packages.

Keep in mind that the specific work packages, which are necessary to deliver on the sub-deliverables, are usually grouped together as a list of to-do tasks. Each work package represents the to-do tasks that the assigned team member must complete within a specific time frame, cost allocation, and even level of effort, among other parameters.

And speaking of cost, each specific work package will be assigned to a specific department, known as a cost account, to produce the desired work. Each department should be defined in the organisation breakdown structure and provided with a budget to generate the specific deliverables.

The entire organisation including the project team can then track both project performance and financial progress due to the integration of the various cost accounts from the project’s work breakdown structure and the organizational breakdown structure.

Benefits from the Work Breakdown Structure

The work breakdown structure is widely considered by project managers as the foundation of project planning, if not the project itself. This is not surprising considering that there are a number of benefits that can be gained from implementing a clear, well-written, and well-assigned work breakdown structure.

Higher productivity

The work breakdown structure facilitates the effective identification of the skills sets required to complete the work that, in turn, facilitates the speedy determination of the right people for the job. It also facilitates the determination of the right number of people necessary for work completion.

With the right people and the right number of people on the job, the team members in particular and the team in general should be more productive. This can result in delivering the right deliverables at the right time and with the right costs, perhaps even exceed expectations.

More detailed steps

The work breakdown structure allows the team members to see the delineation of the steps required in delivering the desired product or service to the stakeholders. Team members will then be able to better understand the relationships between the steps and the deliverables.

Plus, the discussions related to the delineation of the steps will be useful in clarifying ambiguities, narrowing the project’s scope, and bringing out assumptions into the open, as well as raising critical issues that can adversely affect team performance.

Encourage accountability and transparency

The work breakdown structure provides for a level of detail that makes it easier for the project manager to hold his team members accountable and responsible for the completion of their tasks. This is also true for the team members in relation to the project manager’s own work performance – truly, a two-way street that also encourages more effective communication.

With a defined work breakdown structure, the team also enjoys a greater level of transparency. Everybody will know what everybody else should be doing and achieving at every phase of the project that, in turn, can be used to promote a sense of unity for a shared purpose.

Recommended Reading: How to Avoid Project Failure

Better cost and time calculations and tracking

The work breakdown structure allows for the allocation of time and cost estimates for all of the specific work packages (i.e., sections). Such estimates then facilitate a more realistic project schedule and budget that team members are more likely to follow, thus, boosting team morale.

As the project tasks are executed, the project manager as well as his team members and clients can then track the costs and expenses in relation to the allocations. Issues, concerns and problem areas can then be quickly identified and addressed before these become a source for delays in the project.

Better risk identification and minimisation

The work breakdown structure can also be utilized in the identification and minimisation of the threats posed by risks. Keep in mind that risks in projects cannot be totally eliminated but these can be significantly minimsed so that these pose little to no danger to the team’s on-time accomplishment of goals.

The risks are usually tracked in a project log, reviewed during project execution, and minimised when necessary. The best way to identify risks is to look at all of the branches in a work breakdown structure and then identify a branch with less than defined parameters; it represents a risk to the scope definition and, hence, to the project.

Better progress monitoring

The work breakdown structure can also be used to easily and quickly identify the major deliverables affected by delays in any of the specific work packages or sub-deliverables. The faster the source of the delays and the impact on the deliverables can be identified, the faster the appropriate action can be made so as to avert a project crisis, perhaps even a project cessation.

Since the project can be better monitored, the team members are also more likely to be committed and motivated to do their jobs according to the parameters. Plus, their active participation in the formulation, implementation and evaluation of the work breakdown structure also encourages deeper motivation and, thus, better performance.

Of course, the assumption here is that the work breakdown structure itself was made with effectiveness and efficiency in mind but that’s another story.