How to create a Work Breakdown Structure A simple way to identify and categorise tasks

How to create a Work Breakdown Structure <span class='article-subtitle'>A simple way to identify and categorise tasks</span>

A crucial part of the planning stage of project management is creating a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). In this blog, we explain how anyone can easily create a WBS with the help of humble Post-it notes!

What is a Work Breakdown Structure?

The Project Management Institute's PMBOK® Guide defines a Work Break Structure as:

"A deliverable-oriented hierarchical decomposition of the work to be executed by the project team to accomplish the project objectives and create the required deliverables. It organises and defines the total scope of the project."

While an entirely accurate description, it's not the easiest to understand for those that might be new to project management. So let’s hear how Mr Gantt himself, Chris Croft describes it:

A Work Breakdown Structure is a fancy way of saying a tree of tasks - Chris Croft

Simple right?

How to quickly create an accurate Work Breakdown Structure

While you'd be forgiven for being a bit daunted by some of the terminologies, it's actually straightforward for anyone to create a Work Breakdown Structure. To do it, we just need to follow three key steps:

  1. Brainstorm the tasks required to deliver the project
  2. Categorise them into logical groups
  3. Ask experts for their input

Post-it notes are the perfect tool for mapping out tasks

Chris Croft is a massive advocate of Post-it notes when brainstorming and organising tasks. So much so that he's even developed a proprietary way of peeling them off so they don't curl up - his SPM!

Use one Post-it note for each task and stick them up on a board or a wall where everyone can see them. Anyone involved in the brainstorming will have an instant visual overview of the project, and it's easy to add and remove tasks and organise them.

The final part of this Post-it note pitch is to say that you'll also have a bit of space on each, ready for when you start estimating timescales.

To stock up on Post-it Notes, head down to your local (or maybe not so these days) Post Office or any respectable stationery retailer!

1. Brainstorming tasks

The starting point for building your WBS is the same whether you're doing the project alone or with others. Look at the deliverables, and brainstorm all the tasks you think you'll need to meet them. At this stage, don't worry about their order or how they relate to each other; just write down every task required to deliver the project.

2. Categorise your tasks

Next, you'll want to categorise your tasks into groups, forming your Work Breakdown Structure, and this is where Post-its come into their own. Decide on your categories and sub-categories if required, and move your tasks into them to create what resembles a tree of Post-its.

Tree of Post-its

How many categories you have and what they are is completely down to you. There's also no need to worry about who will be delivering the tasks at this stage - we're only interested in grouping them.

Have you missed anything?

Now that you've got your tasks into neat categories, it might become apparent that you've missed something important. Add in anything you've forgotten now before moving on to asking experts for their input.

3. Ask experts for their input

We suggest waiting until you have all your tasks grouped into a Work Breakdown Structure before speaking to an expert, as it saves their time and shows them a clear picture of your plan. That expert could be a colleague, friend, contractor or someone you know who is knowledgeable about the type of work you're planning.

Ask them what they think, have you missed anything, and have you included things which aren't necessary and then adapt your plan accordingly.

How many tasks should you have?

One of the tricky parts of planning out your project is deciding how granular you are with tasks. You want your plan to be accurate and include all the steps you need to take, but not a minute-by-minute playbook!

Here's an example of a well-defined list of tasks vs one which is too granular.

Project: Painting a room at home

Well Defined Too Granular
1. Buy paint 1. Discuss paint colour with partner
2. Empty room / protect furnishings 2. Choose paint finish
3. Prepare walls 3. Research paint brands
4. Paint two coats 4. Go to the DIY store
5. Uncover and reposition furnishings 5. Buy Paint
6. Remove pictures from walls
7. Cover Sofa
8. Take the TV off of the wall
9. Fill holes in the wall
10. Sand filler
11. Vaccum room
12. And so on...

Create sub-projects if you find yourself with more than 20-30 tasks

If you feel that you need more granularity for part of the project, then a good practice is to create a sub-plan where you can break those tasks down a bit further. It keeps your main project manageable and avoids clutter while giving you the detail you need.

Create sub-projects if you find yourself with more than 20-30 tasks

What comes next?

Once you're happy with your plan and how everything's grouped, you're ready to move on to building a sequence and estimating timescales and costs.

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