Work breakdown structure simply explained

Just as an architect creates a blueprint for a building or an engineer for a bridge, project managers create plans for their projects. An important tool in the project manager's toolbox is the work breakdown structure. A work breakdown structure, or WBS, should always provide a clear overview of the entire project. As every project is unique, these plans will not always look the same. However, some basic rules can be established for a good work breakdown structure, and this article aims to show you the benefits of a work breakdown structure for your project. Are you working with different project participants for the first time? Is your team interdisciplinary? It is clear that you need to work closely together. This is the first and most important reason for having a plan, because in a mixed team that is not well rehearsed, misunderstandings are inevitable if no one knows exactly what needs to be done.
A black and gold camera in individual parts on a white background.


Who does what?

Clear structures, clear processes, clear responsibilities and, of course, clear information about what needs to be done - all of this needs to be as clear as possible to everyone. This is where the work breakdown structure comes in. As the name suggests, it breaks down the project into its component parts, providing order and clarity. Subtasks and work packages are easier to manage and keep track of. It also helps the project manager to keep an eye on the goal. As a project manager, you can also use a work breakdown structure to see what is in your area of responsibility. Anything listed there is relevant to the project. Everything that is not included in your WBS is out of your scope. This makes it easier to separate your project from others.
Example of a work breakdown structure
Example of a work breakdown structure

Plan economically

The work breakdown structure is often described as the plan of plans, which is a good choice of words, because basically you plan what you plan. A good and comprehensive WBS provides the work packages and is the basis for planning the project schedule and completion dates, as well as budget and resource planning. In addition, risk management can use the WBS to identify risk work packages. The WBS structures the project and helps the project manager to delegate tasks and responsibilities to the next management level of the project, the sub-project managers. Sub-project managers can immediately see which tasks are in their area of responsibility. Information about the start and end of work packages, for example, also shows them when they need to take action and deliver results. Dependencies become visible and, most importantly, are known by all team members.

A useful tool

A work breakdown structure has many advantages, especially for the administration of the project. It can help to save time and money. Ideally, the project manager develops the WBS with the team at the start of the project. Although this means that it will probably have to be adjusted several times, as some tasks may not be foreseeable at the outset, it ensures from the outset that no important elements of the project are forgotten or neglected. Unpleasant surprises can thus be avoided. It is advisable to prepare the WBS as a team because then everyone is on board from the start, the project benefits from everyone's experience and the plan is much more comprehensive, detailed and meaningful. In addition, the experts from each discipline usually know best what needs to be done.

More tips

When setting up the WBS, the project manager does not yet have to think about responsibilities. The WBS can be used as an instrument to match the individual work packages with the existing competencies in the team. This gives the project manager the opportunity to distribute responsibility to the appropriate sub-project leaders and work package managers from the beginning. This strengthens the employees' trust in the project manager's leadership ability and also increases the project team members' motivation and identification with their own tasks. A brief word on communication: The project manager cannot overestimate the importance of communication. They must take care of personal contact with all important stakeholders and do so from the very beginning. This is the only way to understand expectations and respond to them. Project managers inform themselves specifically and as much as possible, and as much as necessary. It is only advantageous if all stakeholders, even those who are only marginally involved in the project, always have an idea of what is going on. And the WSB can be an instrument for this as well, a notepad, so to speak, of who should receive information about what, when and how. And this does not only mean reports, but also the personal touch in the delivery of information.


The project manager uses the work breakdown structure to plan, monitor and control the project. However, a competent project manager also uses it for marketing purposes, to demonstrate their structured and methodical approach, and to show that they are prepared for anything that may come up in the project. A quick glance at the plan can answer a wide range of questions, even on the most complex projects.

Work breakdown structure - the IAPM logo
Author: IAPM internal
Keywords: Project management, Work breakdown structure

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