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Shannon Toe

Workstream in Project Management: Explained in 3 Minutes

Workstreams are the project management measuring cups. They give you an order to follow and a load of work to focus on at a specific stage of the project. 

Anyone who works on multi-level projects with many moving pieces knows how difficult it can be to keep track of what's going on. And how complicated it can get if one cog goes missing from your project machine. 

Workstreams are an excellent way to represent those projects visually, and in a very accessible way for anyone involved to keep tabs on the big picture.

Here’s a closer look at them.

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What is a workstream in project management?

A workstream is a way to divide and conquer large projects.

It is also a way to cut your project into slices that you can more easily handle. The "work" in workstream refers to the work your team needs to do on its piece of the project in order to finish it at the desired level of quality. 

The idea is that each team handles its own piece of the project and then passes its part on to the next team in line. This makes it much easier to manage tasks than if they were all done by one group, since each group only has to be aware of its own part of the overall project. This also lets you split up your work into segments so that teams can be assigned based on their expertise.

Some projects are naturally divided up into workstreams — a website design, for example, might have separate people working on different features so that each team can focus on whatever tasks they're best at. For other projects, like those where people are collaborating on creating software, you may choose to create sub-teams.

Workstream examples

Let’s start easy.

Example 1: Building a house

In simple terms, anything that can be considered a project will almost certainly consist of workstreams. Building a house is one easy example where you can discern multiple workstreams:

  • Choosing the land where you want to build it
  • Reaching out to an architect to come up with your house design
  • Finding a team of construction workers 
  • Choosing an interior design agency
  • Executing the things you planned

So workstreams are those meaningful chunks of work you need to get through to finish a milestone. They account for all the activities you need to do to get to the next stage in your project scope. In a way, they help you make sure you never bite off more than you can chew. 

Example 2: Building a website

When you’re managing a professional services business, those workstreams are just as relevant. For example, if you get a client who wants you to build their website from the ground up, it’s not just design that comes into play. Instead, you need to engage several teams and build their workflows around the core goal. 

Here are the workstreams you could generally have on such a project:

  • Gathering website requirements
  • Developing UX and UI strategies
  • Launching development
  • Analyzing user engagement
  • Syncing operations

But there is an important thing to note here: projects are rarely a linear process. More often than not, it’s a to-and-fro plus give-and-take situation. And for those processes not to get chaotic and tangled, you need to build workstreams. 

How to best visualize workstreams on a project

Use this simple rule: visualize everything that can be visualized — from projects and milestones, to clients and roles. Your goal here is to create a roadmap of the project

Here’s what it would look like with Runn’s Project Planner.

Create a new project

You open by creating a project, adding your clients (so they can track project progress), and start breaking it down into meaningful units, your workstreams (which can also be or comprise your milestones or project phases).

Visualize it with Gantt charts

One of the best ways to visualize the workstreams on a project is to map them out in a Gantt chart. 

A Gantt chart is a horizontal bar chart that shows each task that needs to be completed, and the amount of time it will take. 

Each task should have its own line on the graph, with the length of each depending on how much time it will take. The time frame for this project should be represented as well by a horizontal line at the top of the graph.

workstream in project management

Assign people

With that part of the planning done, you can start building a project team and assigning team members to the project. You can look at their role, expertise, and, most importantly, their availability to see whether they have enough capacity left to take on another workstream. 

If you are not yet sure whether the expert you are assigning makes the best match on any of the criteria above, you can assign a role rather than a specific person. That way, you will know what kind of expertise you need, how many hours of work that workstream will take, and whether your current team can handle it. If not, you will already have clear requirements for the recruitment team to look for when hiring reinforcements. 

Run scenarios

Once you’re through with this part of the dance, feel free to do some scenario planning.

Scenario planning at Runn is your project fortune teller — will your workstreams go the way you plan them to go? Is your project feasible? Is the capacity of your entire team enough to cover all the workstreams planned? And if not, what would that mean for the overall project health? 

Wrapping it up

If you're a project manager, you've probably encountered a situation where someone involved in the project doesn't have all the information they need to complete their workstream, or maybe you've been that person yourself.

Either way, it's a frustrating situation for everyone involved and it's easy to feel overwhelmed and disorganized as you try to make sense of everything on your own.

Getting your projects properly visualized is a sure way to keep your initiatives from sidetracking and always being able to say what happened in the past, what’s happening now, and where your projects are headed tomorrow.

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