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Libby Marks

Eat Your Elephant: How to Create a Work Breakdown Structure [with WBS templates]

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Learn how to break your projects down into more manageable mouthfuls with Work Breakdown Structures.

Ever looked at a project and wondered where to even start with planning? That’s what Work Breakdown Structures are for.

A Work Breakdown Structure helps you break down a large complex project into smaller, more manageable morsels. From there, you can easily budget, plan resources, and start scheduling. 

By following our step-by-step guide to creating a Work Breakdown Structure, you can eat that project elephant, one perfectly planned bite at a time!

In this article:

What is a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)?

You’ll often see a Work Breakdown Structure described as a ‘hierarchical decomposition of project tasks’. But we prefer our definitions in plain English. 

A Work Breakdown Structure is a detailed to-do list for a project. It's a breakdown of all the tasks needed to finish the project, organized in a logical order. 

Work Breakdown Structures break projects down into larger elements and then the smaller tasks needed to complete them. It provides an overview of: 

  • What a project entails, from bird’s eye view to more granular detail
  • How it all fits together and the order it needs to happen in

You don’t need any specialist tools to create a work breakdown structure. Most people just use Excel, though that's not really our speed (see below). However, you can invest in dedicated Work Breakdown Structure software if you create them regularly.

WBS in a nutshell...

Free Work Breakdown Structure template

The beauty of a WBS is that it takes something as abstract and amorphous as a project that needs to be done and maps out what this is going to look like - using a visual language that is accessible and clear.

We're big fans of visual planning at Runn (I mean, have you seen our platform? It's very easy on the eyes 👀). And this is why, personally, we prefer whiteboarding software over spreadsheets for work breakdown structures (though to be honest our general dissatisfaction with spreadsheets is well documented...).

This free WBS template from Miro is a good place to start if you want to build a clear work breakdown structure.

Work Breakdown Structure vs project schedule: what’s the difference?

With so many project management documents in the mix, you might wonder if a Work Breakdown Structure is the same as a project schedule.

While they seem superficially similar – concerned with project tasks and their order – they serve different purposes. 

  • Work Breakdown Structure – Concerned with breaking down the scope of the complex projects into discrete packages of work, to accurately identify what work is required 
  • Project schedule – Concerned with exact timings, durations, dependencies, and resource allocations involved in a project 

As you can see, Work Breakdown Structures actually help you create a project schedule

A WBS provides the list of tasks that need scheduling, as well as the order they need to happen in. This ensures the project schedule accurately reflects the project scope and doesn’t miss anything out. 

[Read this next if you’re puzzled over project schedules vs project roadmaps vs project charters]

What is the purpose of Work Breakdown Structures?

We’ve touched on it above, but the purpose of the Work Breakdown Structure is to get down into the detail of what a project actually involves. It provides a systematic and organized way to understand its various components and requirements.

Here’s why Work Breakdown Structures are key to effective project management and what they help you do.

Define your project scope

A WBS helps you define project scope by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable components. It provides a comprehensive list of all the tasks and deliverables required to complete the project.

Organize your project tasks 

A Work Breakdown Structure organizes your project tasks into a logical order, making it easier to understand the relationship between different tasks, how they fit together, and any dependencies. Tasks are grouped into ‘work packages’ representing specific parts of the project. 

Allocate project resources

By breaking the project into well-defined smaller components, Work Breakdown Structures support project resource management. As a project manager, it helps you understand the skills and expertise required. This helps determine what type of resources are needed for different elements of the project (the when and who comes at project scheduling stage).

Estimate your costs

A WBS provides a more nuanced understanding of what a project entails, and that helps project managers to estimate costs more accurately. This leads to better project financial management – with improved planning and control and – hopefully – profit margins. 

Identify project risks

By identifying the tasks and dependencies involved in a project, a WBS shines a light on the previously unknown. This helps identify potential project bottlenecks or risks, so PMs can start planning mitigation strategies.  

Communicate with stakeholders

A Work Breakdown Structure is a valuable communication tool that makes sure projects meet expectations. Consultation with stakeholders when you’re creating your WBS ensures future project plans match the desired outcomes. And, during project execution, any team member can consult the WBS to check their understanding of what’s required. 

Benefits of creating a Work Breakdown Structure

Looking at the list above, it’s clear that creating a Work Breakdown Structure is highly beneficial to project-based businesses. It helps overcome many common project management challenges and makes your entire project more manageable. 

By providing a firm foundation for project scheduling and forecasting, Work Breakdown Structures help a project manager develop realistic timelines and allocate resources effectively. This ensures that projects are completed on time and within budget, enhancing overall project success rates.

Also, by improving communication, a Work Breakdown Structure fosters collaboration and alignment throughout the project lifecycle. It ensures that everyone involved in the project understands their roles and responsibilities, leading to increased stakeholder satisfaction and reduced misunderstandings or conflicts.

Plus, the systematic organization of projects into work packages and tasks lets project managers track project progress, monitor task completion, and identify any deviations from the planned course of action. This proactive approach allows for timely adjustments and interventions, minimizing project risks and maximizing project outcomes.

In a nutshell, creating a WBS means:

  • Better-informed project scheduling and resource allocation
  • Higher likelihood of completing projects on time and on budget
  • Lower risk of misunderstandings and stakeholder dissatisfaction
  • Ability to spot and correct variance in a timely way

Perhaps why Work Breakdown Structures are championed as best practice by the Project Management Institute and Institute of Project Management.

What are the key components of a Work Breakdown Structure?

You’ll already be familiar with some of the components of a Work Breakdown Structure. They’re part of the general vocabulary of project planning. Like project milestones and dependencies. But there’s also specific WBS elements you need to know. 

There are three levels in a WBS structure:

Major milestones/project phases

These are the top-level components of your WBS. They provide a bird’s eye view of what the project involves. Examples include the completion of the design phase, implementation phase, and testing phase.

Work packages

These are the next level in the WBS. They’re groups of related tasks needed to achieve specific project phases or deliverables. For instance, in the implementation phase, work packages could include software development, hardware procurement, and installation.


These are the lowest levels in the WBS. They represent the individual tasks that need to be completed within a work package. Examples of tasks could include coding a specific feature, conducting user testing, and writing technical documentation.

Then there are additional elements that give the basic structure more detail.  

WBS codes

These are ID numbers assigned to each component of the WBS. For example, a WBS code for a task could be 4.1.3, where 4 represents the fourth major deliverable, 1 represents the first work package within that deliverable, and 3 represents the third task within that work package. 

Task dependencies 

Indicators of any relationship between tasks that mean one task can impact another. For example, 4.2.1 needs to be completed before 5.1 can start. Dependencies help in understanding the sequence of tasks and ensure that the project progresses smoothly.

Duration estimates 

Preliminary estimates of how long each task might take, to start developing the project schedule. They help in allocating resources effectively and managing stakeholder expectations regarding project timelines. 

By combining these different elements, you’ll be able to create a clear and logical WBS that supports outstanding project delivery. Speaking of which – how do you create a Work Breakdown Structure?

How to create a Work Breakdown Structure: step-by-step guide

Now you know the purpose and benefits of creating Work Breakdown Structures, you’ll want to know how to do it. Follow the 10 simple steps below and you’ll have a workable WBS in no time. 

1. Understand the project scope

Like all effective project planning, creating a WBS starts with a thorough understanding of the project’s scope. 

  • Exactly what is in scope, what’s not? 
  • What are the project objectives?
  • What are the clients desired outcomes?
  • What constraints are you working within? 

Identify and involve key project stakeholders at this point. Getting their input early will help avoid misunderstandings that could cause problems later in the process. 

2. Identify major deliverables

Next, break down the project scope into major project deliverables or milestones. These are the key outcomes that need to be achieved to complete the project successfully. For example, in a software development project, major deliverables could include requirements gathering, design, development, testing, and deployment.These will inform the work packages and tasks you identify later.

3. Decompose your deliverables

Now it's time to ‘decompose’ your deliverables – that just means breaking them down, like composting! Decomposition involves breaking down each major deliverable into smaller, more manageable tasks. Keep breaking them down until you have actionable lists of tasks needed – that leaves no room for confusion or misinterpretation. For example, if we were to decompose the tasks for the development deliverable, it might include tasks such as coding, debugging, and documentation. Each of these should be decomposed further into smaller tasks that can be allocated to – and understood by – relevant resources. 

4. Organize tasks hierarchically

It’s the logical order of Work Breakdown Structures that makes them so much more than a simple to-do list. So now you’ve identified your tasks, you need to organize them in a hierarchical structure – from major deliverables to individual tasks. The process of decomposing your deliverables gives you a head start on this stage. 

5. Assign WBS codes

Decide your coding structure and assign codes to each task in the Work Breakdown Structure. Ensure that the codes follow a standardized format and reflect the hierarchical structure of the WBS. There isn’t a global format for WBS codes, you can define your own, but why reinvent the wheel? WBS codes typically look like this 

  • 1.1 Requirements Gathering
    • 1.1.1 Define project objectives
    • 1.1.2 Conduct stakeholder interviews
    • 1.1.3…
  • 1.2 Design
    • 1.2.1 Develop wireframes
    • 1.2.2 Create mockups
    • 1.2.3…

6. Map dependencies

Identify dependencies between tasks to understand their relationships and sequencing. Task dependencies could be based on task prerequisites, resource availability, or other constraints. Incorporate these dependencies into the WBS to create a logical flow of work.For example

  • Task 1.2.1 Develop wireframes is dependent on Task 1.1.1 Define project objectives
  • Task 1.2.2 Create mockups is dependent on Task 1.2.1 Develop wireframes

By mapping dependencies accurately, you ensure that tasks are completed in the correct order, minimizing delays and optimizing project efficiency.

7. Estimate durations

Next, estimate how long each task is going to take. You’ll need to determine the amount of time needed to complete each task. You can talk to subject matter experts and task owners to see what they think. And you can use historical data from past projects to see how long similar tasks have taken. But you also need to consider the context of this current project.

For example, if creating mockups normally takes two designers three days, but you currently only have one designer, it’ll take them six. Estimating durations will help with scheduling and resourcing decisions. For example, if you want the project completed faster, you may need to hire a new designer.

8. Validate with stakeholders 

Congratulations, you’ve completed your WBS. You’ve input all of your information into your WBS template. Now it’s time to review and validate it with your project stakeholders. Ask them to check it for completeness and accuracy – to the best of their understanding of the project scope and deliverables. 

9. Communicate and maintain 

Once the Work Breakdown Structure is signed off, you should share the finished document with all stakeholders. Don’t forget to update it if something changes – like a change in deliverable or emerging resource constraints – and share the revised version. 

10. Use your WBS to plan your schedule 

The next step is to use your Work Breakdown Structure to start scheduling your project. The tasks, durations, sequences, and dependencies form the foundation of your project schedule. You can then map them against a timeline, and begin identifying and allocating resources. Those WBS codes from earlier? They’re often incorporated in the project schedule to make it easier for people to trace tasks back from the schedule to the WBS, and understand where they originated from.

Do I need a Work Breakdown Structure? WBS alternatives

Having learned about the many benefits of creating a Work Breakdown Structure, you might think they’re a must-have. And they certainly are useful. But does every project need a Work Breakdown Structure? 

For larger and more complex projects, you are strongly advised to create a WBS. But, if you’re planning a smaller project, you might not always need one. If you choose not to create a WBS, you could consider these alternatives to help you break down your project and communicate it with others.

To-do lists

Yep, it’s as easy as that. A small project could simply use a to-do list as the basis for their project plan. A to-do list is similar to a Work Breakdown Structure in that it lists the tasks you need to complete. It doesn’t have the hierarchical structure, coding, and dependency mapping – but your project might not need it.


If you’re more of a free-thinker, mind mapping can help you work out what’s required in smaller projects. They help you brainstorm and identify tasks – but in a non-linear way. Their visual nature means you can map relationships between related tasks. But they’re not so great for creating a logical timeline.

Kanban boards

Kanban boards can help you decompose deliverables and display them in a structured way – like a visual to-do list. They’re popular in Agile project management. Each column in your board can represent a deliverable or work package, and each card a specific task. This helps visualize tasks and project structure.

Gantt charts

We have to mention Gantt charts as they’re such a well-known tool but they’re not really a WBS alternative. You can use the information from a WBS to create a Gantt chart and show tasks against a timeline. But you need to know what those tasks are first – and that’s the job of a WBS. 

Resource management software

Again, not a WBS alternative, but a great way to build on your WBS once it’s complete. Resource management software – like Runn – lets you create project schedules, allocate resources, assign tasks, and monitor progress. And with not a spreadsheet in sight. (When it comes to Runn vs spreadsheets, there’s no contest!)

Runn's Project Planner interface

Turn your WBS into project success

Once you’ve built your Work Breakdown Structure in Excel, it’s time to graduate from spreadsheets to resource management software.

Resource management software makes it infinitely easier to plan complex projects and manage resources.

Here are some features you need in your life:

  • Drag-and-drop project scheduling and resource allocation
  • Centralized resource pool, searchable by role, skills, cost, and more
  • Live data on resource allocations, availability, and capacity
  • Project management charts for at-a-glance insights into progress and variance
  • Capacity planning and scenario analysis tools
  • Plus lots more

Take a free 14-day trial to discover Runn for yourself. 

Use our sandbox data – or import your own – and see just how easy project planning can be.

Start your free trial with just your email address.

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