Budgeting issues, communication, and risk management are just a few tricky issues project managers face regularly. Managing IT projects often presents even more of a challenge as you deal with high-complexity tasks and processes that must be conducted safely, correctly, and on time.

A work breakdown structure (WBS) is a valuable way to dissect complex IT projects into manageable, trackable tasks. This project management system helps you work through the deliverables and phases involved in a project. You’ll gain clarity on project details, reducing project risks and enhancing client satisfaction. 

In this guide, you’ll learn how a work breakdown structure functions in project management and how to write a good WBS for your next IT project.

What is a work breakdown structure?

A work breakdown structure is a project management system that splits a large project into smaller steps. A WBS starts from the top down, defining the project’s overall deliverable(s) and then breaking the project into smaller components. This is often represented as a hierarchical tree. Each level of the WBS provides a finer level of detail for the project and the tasks involved.

Every project can benefit from a WBS. In fact, you might already be using a WBS without realizing it. Project managers generally have an idea of a project’s step-by-step process in their heads. Writing this system out helps clarify the project scope and get everyone on board to complete the deliverables on time. The more complex a project is, the more important and helpful a work breakdown structure will be. 

Types of work breakdown structures

There are two primary types of work breakdown structures: deliverables-based and phase-based. Every kind of WBS comes with its strengths. Whether you focus on the outcome of a project or the phases you’ll go through along the way, the correct type of WBS can go a long way in helping your project succeed.

Work breakdown structure chart for phase-based and deliverable-based

Phase-based WBS

A phase-based or process-based work breakdown structure organizes your project into key stages. For example, these stages or phases might be planning, design, development, implementation, and testing. Deliverables are included within each of these stages, but this type of WBS focuses on the phase itself.

A phase-based WBS adapts well to potential changes in scope or unforeseen challenges. This allows for more flexibility during complex projects. You’ll find that this type of WBS enhances risk management by identifying and addressing potential issues early in each phase. It also promotes team collaboration and knowledge sharing as each phase builds upon the previous one.

Here’s how an example project of migrating an ERP system to a new cloud platform might look when structured as a phase-based WBS:

    • Phase 1: Planning and assessment
  • Define project goals, scope, and timeline. Assess the existing ERP system and its data. Identify potential risks and challenges.
    • Phase #2: Design and development
  • Design the cloud architecture, customize the ERP system for the new platform, and develop migration scripts and integration tools.
    • Phase #3: Deployment and testing
  • Migrate data, configure the ERP system on the cloud platform, conduct thorough testing to ensure functionality and data integrity, and prepare to go live.
    • Phase #4: Training and support
  • Train users on the new system, provide ongoing support during the initial rollout and address any technical issues that arise.
    • Phase #5: Optimization and monitoring
  • Analyze system performance, identify opportunities for further optimization, and adapt the system to evolving business needs.

Rather than focusing on the end product, a phase-based WBS prioritizes the process of how you’ll get there.  

Deliverable-based WBS

A deliverable-based (or product-based) work breakdown structure emphasizes the final outputs of your project. Using this structure, you break the project into specific deliverables with the estimated time and cost needed. 

Deliverable-based structures set clear milestones that align with tangible outputs. This keeps clients informed along the way, ensuring that everyone’s expectations are aligned. Scope control is also easier because tasks are grouped around specific deliverables, minimizing potential scope creep. Another benefit of a deliverable-based WBS is that it streamlines project execution as you prioritize tasks based on their contributions to specific deliverables. 

Consider a project that involves migrating a company’s ERP system to a new cloud platform. An example deliverable-based work breakdown structure might look like:

    • Deliverable #1: Data preparation and cleansing
  • Identify, extract, and clean data from the existing ERP system to ensure compatibility with the new platform.
    • Deliverable #2: Cloud platform provisioning and configuration
  • Set up the necessary cloud infrastructure, configure network security, and establish user access controls. 
    • Deliverable #3: ERP system migration and integration
  • Transfer the cleansed data to the new platform, customize workflows, and integrate the ERP system with other enterprise applications.
    • Deliverable #4: User training and system testing
  • Train employees on the new system, conduct thorough testing, and prepare to go live.
    • Deliverable #5: Post-migration support and optimization
  • Provide ongoing user support, monitor system performance, and identify opportunities for further optimization. 

This work breakdown structure walks you through each step of the project, focusing on the specific task that needs to be completed during that step. A deliverable-based WBS lets you see the overall project scope at a glance and shows how these separate components relate to form the end goal — in this case, successfully completing an ERP cloud migration. 

Which type of WBS is right for your project?

Both types of work breakdown structures have their benefits and strengths. Before creating a WBS for a project, you’ll need to consider whether that project is best suited to focus on deliverables or phases.

A phase-based WBS is a better choice for:

  • Complex projects with overlapping phases or ambiguous deliverables.
  • Projects with high uncertainty or the potential for change during execution.
  • Projects requiring strong team collaboration and knowledge transfer between phases.

A deliverable-based WBS is best for:

  • Projects with clearly defined deliverables and outcomes.
  • Projects with well-established industry standards and best practices.
  • Projects with a strong focus on client communication and expectations.

How to create a work breakdown structure

You’ll follow similar steps to write it regardless of which WBS type you choose. Remember, your goal is to create a logical, hierarchical representation of each step for project completion and success. Here’s how to write a work breakdown structure: 

1. Define project scope

The first step in writing a work breakdown structure for project management is clarifying the project scope. Clearly define the project’s objectives and deliverables. If you’re struggling to come up with specific deliverables, think about the project’s desired purpose, outcome, or goal. What does the project include? What does it exclude? In the end, what do you need to have accomplished? These questions can help you create a project scope and develop tangible deliverables.

2. Identify major milestones

Next, make a list of all the deliverables for the project — including the project’s ultimate goal, as well as any smaller deliverables along the way. Then, break the project into key phases or stages encompassing each of these deliverables or milestones. (This is how to write a deliverable-based WBS — if you’d prefer a phase-based WBS, simply flip the order, creating stages first and then listing the deliverables involved in each stage.)

3. Assign work packages

Work packages are the smallest tasks required in each deliverable or phase. They’re the lowest level of each “leg” or branch of your WBS. Here’s what this might look like:

  • Project: Migrating ERP system to a new cloud platform
  • Deliverable: Data preparation and cleansing
  • Task: Extract data from existing ERP system 
  • Subtask: Connect Extract, Transform, and Load (ETL) tool
  • Work package: Pull out and convert data

If you can’t break a task down any further, it is a work package. Work packages are helpful because they define exactly what team members need to do. Project managers can use them to delegate multiple tasks to multiple employees who can begin work on these tasks at the same time.

4. Estimate time and resources

Assign realistic timeframes and resource requirements to each task. Estimate an overall project timeline by taking the tasks and work packages you’ve created and calculating the average time needed to complete each. Add these together (considering which tasks might be completed simultaneously) to find an approximate timeline for the overall project. You can also add a contingency buffer of extra time to account for any unexpected issues.

Estimating project resources — including people, materials, time, and anything else needed — is essential because it helps you stay within the project scope. Estimate resources using methods like expert judgment, which draws on team members’ experience to create an estimate. Or use analogous estimation to estimate using historical data from past projects. 

5. Validate WBS

Before moving forward, pause to validate your work breakdown structure, ensuring it aligns with project goals and stakeholder expectations. Ask questions like:

  • Does the work breakdown structure align with the project scope?
  • Are the deliverables clear and measurable?
  • Does each task contain an appropriate level of detail and description?

Get feedback, whether formally or informally, from stakeholders and relevant experts. You can also use historical data from past projects as a guide.

6. Refine and iterate

A work breakdown structure serves as a guide to help you successfully complete a project. It doesn’t have to be set in stone. Be ready and willing to adapt your WBS as the project progresses and unforeseen circumstances arise. For example, if some tasks take longer than expected, you might have to shift the timeline for dependent tasks. 

Benefits of a work breakdown structure

Creating a work breakdown structure breaks an intimidating project into smaller, more manageable tasks. It helps your team to avoid feeling overwhelmed and to stay on track to complete the project by its deadline. You can use a WBS to map out deliverables, define project scope, and divide and conquer. 

By using a work breakdown structure for your next project, you’ll see benefits including:

Enhanced client satisfaction 

A WBS provides a clear breakdown of tasks, including their timeline and all associated costs. By following this outline, you’ll be better equipped to deliver projects on time and within budget — meeting client expectations with transparent communication and progress tracking. 

Reduced project risks

Identify and mitigate potential issues early on with a clear roadmap and granular task breakdown. With transparent project progress updates, you can promptly communicate any potential problems to clients, allowing time to collaborate on solutions and correct course before those issues escalate. 

Comprehensive project understanding

A work breakdown structure clearly states who is involved in the project, their responsibilities, and when those deliverables should be finished. Your team can focus on the project scope and effectively complete the assigned work.

Write better work breakdown structures and statements of work with ScopeStack

Creating a solid work breakdown structure can deliver exceptional client experiences, optimize your workflow, and unlock new levels of project success. Your WBS goes hand-in-hand with your statement of work (SOW), a legal document that outlines the project scope and other essential details.

You don’t have to write these important documents from scratch. Let ScopeStack help. We offer an intuitive scoping editor, software integrations, and dozens of SOW templates — all tailor-made for IT. Contact our team to see how we can help you prepare for your next project.

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