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How to Improve Your Work Breakdown Structure

Project managers should strive to constantly improve a project's work breakdown structure (WBS). You increase the chances of your project’s success when your WBS is accurate and complete and when people who will be performing the work understand and agree with it.

The following guidelines suggest some ways to improve your WBS’s accuracy and acceptance:

  • Involve the people who’ll be doing the work. When possible, involve them during the initial development of the WBS. If they join the project after the initial planning, have them review and critique the WBS before they begin work.

  • Review and include information from WBSs from similar projects. Review plans and consult people who’ve worked on projects similar to yours that were successful. Incorporate your findings into your WBS.

  • Keep your WBS current. When you add, delete, or change WBS elements during your project, be sure to reflect these changes in your WBS.

  • Make assumptions regarding uncertain activities. If you’re not sure whether you’ll do a particular activity, make an assumption and prepare your WBS based on that assumption. Be sure to document that assumption. If your assumption proves to be wrong during the project, change your plan to reflect the true situation.

  • Remember that your WBS identifies only your project’s deliverables; it doesn’t depict their chronological order. Nothing is wrong with including activities from left to right or top to bottom in the approximate order that you’ll perform them. However, in complex projects, you may have difficulty showing detailed interrelationships among activities in the WBS format. The purpose of the WBS is to ensure that you identify all project deliverables.

When writing your WBS, use action verbs when framing the titles of the activities that comprise a work package to clarify the nature of the work they entail. Action verbs can improve your time and resource estimates, your work assignments to team members, and your tracking and reporting because they provide a clear picture of what an activity entails.

Consider the assignment to prepare a report after a team meeting. Suppose you choose Draft Report to be one of its work packages. If you don’t break down Draft Report further, you haven’t indicated clearly whether it includes any or all of the following actions:

  • Collecting information for the draft

  • Determining length and format expectations and restrictions

  • Handwriting the draft

  • Reviewing the draft yourself before officially circulating it to others

But, if you simply word the work package Design and handwrite the draft report — voilà! Your scope of work is instantly clearer. A few well-chosen words at this level go a long way.

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