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Libby Marks

Workstream in Project Management: Explained in 5 Minutes

Workstreams make it easier to plan, monitor, and execute large projects. Here are examples and best practices you need to know. And why workstream visualization is the way to go.

Large projects are hard to manage. The people and activities involved - and their sheer scale - makes them extremely complex. It's one of the reasons large projects can be prone to failure. 

Workstreams break down large projects into smaller parts. These workstreams are highly focused - with their own goals and objectives - and making it easier to plan, monitor and execute their activities. 

And when each of the workstreams is complete, your large project is too. Often with better outcomes than a project that divide-and-conquer using the workstream method.  

Workstreams don't eliminate complexity. But they do make it easier to manage. Especially when you visualize your workflows so everyone can easily see the big picture and their place within it.

Let's take a closer look.

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What is a workstream in project management?

A workstream is a way to divide and conquer large projects. Each workstream is a smaller, self-contained project in its own right. It groups together related tasks - tasks that can be productively completed separately from other tasks, but which will move the overall project forward. 

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.

Workstreams might be completed in a linear way - for example, you might have a workstream focused on research, one on development, and one on delivery. Or they might run concurrently - for example, one workstream working on the copy for a website launch and another on the design. 

➡️ Related: 15 Best Project Management Charts to Visualize Project Operations

Workstream examples

Let’s start easy.

Workstream 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. 

Workstream 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. 

9 benefits of workstreams in project management

We’ve hinted at some of the benefits of workstreams already, but let’s spell them out.

Improved organization

Organizing your large project into smaller workstreams makes it easier to plan, manage, monitor and execute your project overall. Workstreams provide a logic to how large projects are structured and delivered, including their own timeframe, goals, and KPIs.

Greater ownership and engagement

Creating smaller, more focused workstreams gives team members more ownership of their part in the project and increases employee engagement. In a smaller team - with clearly defined, specific KPIs - people can understand their personal contribution to the bigger picture.  

More transparency  

Many projects fail due to lack of visibility - into responsibilities, risks, and progress. Breaking work down into smaller components - and tracking their progress - increases visibility into the overall progress of a larger project. 

Realistic planning 

Breaking projects down into their component parts makes it easier to plan large-scale endeavours, understand their requirements, and forecast schedules and budgets more accurately. This means you’re less likely to go over-time and over-budget overall.   

Accelerated progress

Workstreams support parallel working, where teams work concurrently on their respective tasks. This can help you complete your overall project faster than if you work in a linear fashion, and reduces the time resources might be idle, waiting for work in a more sequential project plan. 

Better resource efficiency

Workstreams make it easier to pinpoint resource needs at specific points in the larger project, and allocate people efficiently. This reduces the risk of overallocation or underutilization of resources. Resource allocation defines how successful and profitable your project is going to be.

Reduced risk exposure

Each workstream has its own KPIs, schedule, and budget. This makes it is easier to monitor and manage progress - and mitigate issues before they become a threat to the larger project. This reduces the risk of cost overruns and project delays.  

Higher staff morale 

Breaking down projects into smaller workstreams means you can celebrate milestones along the way. This keeps staff engagement and morale up - higher than trudging (seemingly endlessly) to the distant finish line of a large project. 

More successful projects

This is the biggie. The benefits above combine to make your projects more successful overall - thanks to lower risk, more accurate forecasting, efficient resource utilization, higher employee engagement, and more.

Worksteam best practices for project managers

Clearly define each workstream

To be focused, successful and efficient, each workstream needs its own objectives and goals. Everyone involved needs to know the scope of their workstream and their role within it.  

Set controls and monitor regularly

Determine what success looks like with KPIs and milestones for each workstream. Monitor progress towards these regularly, so any issues quickly become clear. Be ready to reassign resources if needed.

Map dependencies 

Workstreams can be entirely self-contained. But often there are dependencies between them. X needs to be completed before Y can start. Map and visualize this flow, to reduce the risk of bottlenecks.

Establish communication processes

You don’t want workstreams to become silos. Make sure you have a communication structure that allows a two-way flow of information. Ensure you get and share regular status reports.

Visualize and document workstreams

Make sure each workstream has its own plan and timeline - and integrate this into an overview of all workstreams. This helps everyone easily understand what’s happening and when.

Know how to put it all back together

Have a plan for integrating each workstream’s deliverables back into the whole. For example, a handover that explains rationale, decisions made, and any further dependencies.

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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