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How many times have you worked on a project and wondered if you had identified all of the different pieces of work that are needed? In a simple project, that may not be necessary. As projects become more complicated and involve more people, it becomes important to understand the many pieces of scope, what resources are needed, and how much it is all going to cost. Forgetting a major piece of scope, or misunderstanding what the scope involves could cause your project to fail, at perhaps, great expense.

Seasoned project managers often use a graphic tool called a work breakdown structure to break down a project in the early days. This process helps the team gain clarity on the big pieces of scope that are necessary. This blog provides a four-step guide to creating a work breakdown structure, such as the one pictured here.

To understand how to develop a work breakdown structure, let’s look at a simple example project that everyone should understand: Planning a large event for your community association.

Step One: Identify the most important pieces of scope.

To create a work breakdown structure, the project manager, together with the team and any client, should identify the most important pieces of scope. It is easier to manage costs on the project if you think early about how you are going to do that. For what areas of the project is a budget report needed?

In the case of a large event, you could do it in several different ways. This is one option:WBS1

Step Two: Decide on the best project organization.

Suppose several different groups are organizing the event and we need an accounting for each group. We simply need to know that requirement so that we can organize the planning accordingly. If the different groups are dividing up the work, the WBS might start like this:


Another option might be to organize the project based on the geographic location of the different activities. In that case, the WBS might begin more like this:WBS3The challenge is to think ahead about the scope, the organization, and what kind of accounting is desired.

Step Three: Break down the project.

Once the project team decides how the project is to be organized, the team can then begin to focus on the major pieces of scope that need to be completed – sometimes, called deliverables. The challenge is to identify the important pieces of scope. At this point, do not worry about identifying every single activity. The WBS might grow to look something like this:




Step Four: Identify the known attributes for each activity.

To be reliable, any project budget needs to be carefully created and based on a full understanding of the activity requirements. In the real world, teams do the best they can. Time is money and depending on the project needs, teams may choose to move ahead with executing project activities before the budget is set.


It’s not the ideal, but in the early days of project planning there are a lot of unknowns. Asking the right questions will help uncover important requirements. In the example above, for instance, take security.

In today’s world, organizations have to think about security – but does that mean that the event will pay for three extra off-duty policemen, or will the City or County police be working the entire event with the assistance of a team of 25 extra security personnel? The associated costs are vastly different. What constitutes “done” for this activity – a written plan, a contract, a decision on what needs to be done and a person assigned to handle?

Define “done,” quality objectives, resources needed, and any impediments before estimating costs. All too often, I see project teams estimate the costs before they truly understand what is needed. I understand the need for preliminary cost estimates, but the more you know about the project requirements, the closer you can get to a reliable budget.

Define “done,” quality objectives, resources needed, and any impediments before estimating costs. Click To Tweet

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