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Defining a work breakdown structure in project management

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When you embark on a complicated project, you need a work breakdown structure (WBS) to help you maintain a clear path through the project's landscape. It acts as your project's guiding light, breaking it down into manageable segments. It ensures you don't miss essential details and allows you to assign tasks and monitor progress with precision. 

Simply put, a well-structured WBS is your key to unraveling project complexity and steering it toward success. It can improve project planning and management by providing a clear overview, helping overlook the project, and making it easier to assign responsibilities and track progress.

This guide will discuss a breakdown structure in further detail, including the components of a work breakdown structure, the various types, and how to create one for your project planning.

What is a work breakdown structure?

At its core, a WBS in project management is a hierarchical (or tree-like) decomposition of a project into smaller components.

It takes a project’s vast and often overwhelming scope and breaks it down into smaller, more manageable components. Each level of the structure goes into more detail, making it easier to understand and handle the project.

Purpose of a work breakdown structure

A WBS in project management provides a clear framework for project planning, execution, and control. It aids in cost estimation, task scheduling, and resource allocation. Most importantly, it keeps the project on track by organizing it into smaller, well-defined components.

Key components of a work breakdown structure

Each component of a WBS serves a specific role and conveys a different level of detail. The highest level defines the big picture, while the lowest level specifies every detail.

  • Deliverables: These focus on the big picture and represent the project's ultimate outcome or results.
  • Work packages: These are the smallest work units within the WBS, are the project’s building blocks, and have specific deliverables assigned to them.
  • Tasks and subtasks: These represent a detailed breakdown of the activities or steps within a work package, allowing for precise planning and execution.

Types of work breakdown structures

Your project's specific needs and team preferences are pivotal in determining the most suitable WBS representation. For instance, projects with fixed timeframes and stringent deadlines might opt for a calendar-based representation to meet milestones promptly.

The way your team operates and communicates also impacts the choice. If your team is more comfortable with visual boards and enjoys a hands-on approach to task management, a Kanban board can align well with their preferences.

These are the types of WBS structures you can choose from to suit the project’s requirements and your team's preferences:

Gantt Chart

A Gantt chart is a bar chart that represents task timelines and dependencies. It provides a clear visual representation of the project schedule, showing when each task begins and ends.


Kanban boards are flexible visual tools that help teams manage and prioritize workflows. They display tasks as cards on a board, organized into columns based on their status. A Kanban board is ideal for an Agile development environment.

Pro tip: Learn more about what a Kanban board is for in this comprehensive project management guide.


A calendar-based representation helps track deadlines, milestones, and resource availability. It is most effective for projects with fixed timeframes and deadlines because it shows when each project phase should start and end.

How to create a work breakdown structure

Every WBS should follow similar steps to keep a project organized and on track.

A project manager can use the following five steps to create a WBS for a mobile app project:  

  1. Identify project deliverables. Clarify the project scope and boundaries by listing the tangible outcomes or results the project aims to achieve.

    For a mobile app, deliverables could include a fully functional app with specific features, user documentation, and a marketing plan.
  2. Break down deliverables into work packages. After identifying the high-level deliverables, break them down into smaller, more manageable components.

    For a mobile app, components of the fully functional app might include user authentication, in-app navigation, and user interface design. Break down all deliverables in this way.
  3. Define task relationships. Within each work package, establish relationships between tasks. Some tasks depend on others, meaning they cannot start until a preceding task is complete.

    For a mobile app, finalizing  the user interface design might be necessary before implementing in-app navigation.
  4. Assign resources and durations. Allocate the necessary resources to each task or work package and estimate the time required for its completion.

    For a mobile app, this might involve assigning developers, designers, and testers to specific tasks while estimating the work hours needed for each task.
  5. Review and refine. Creating a WBS is iterative. Review and refine the WBS as the project progresses to adapt to changing project requirements, address unforeseen challenges, and ensure the WBS accurately reflects the project's scope and tasks.

Work breakdown structure templates

Creating a WBS from scratch can be time-consuming. Streamline the process with templates. Not only can templates save you time, but they can also give you peace of mind that you haven't skipped any important steps.

Jira Software includes templates designed for creating a WBS—including a preconfigured Kanban template. For a smooth experience, the Atlassian Marketplace offers a work breakdown structure story board app that seamlessly syncs with Jira Software.

These templates provide a well-defined, customizable framework that takes the guesswork out of your project planning.

Creating a work breakdown structure with Jira Software

Jira Software is a popular project management tool that can create every component of an effective WBS. 

You can define and customize workflows that match your team’s unique processes, ensuring that your WBS aligns precisely with your project's requirements. You can also visualize and track your team's tasks, statuses, and progress with Agile boards (Kanban or Scrum). 

Create, assign, and track tasks or issues throughout their entire life cycle with Jira’s issue-tracking capabilities. Jira Software’s real-time collaboration capabilities let your team communicate and share up-to-the-minute updates. 

Finally, Jira's integration ecosystem lets you connect and synchronize work across different platforms, ensuring your WBS remains a central hub for all project-related information and tasks. Use Jira’s robust reporting and analytics features to track your project’s progress, team performance, and workload distribution. These insights empower you to make data-driven decisions and continually optimize your WBS. 

With Jira Software, you have a comprehensive toolkit to create, manage, and maintain an efficient WBS. Its versatile features and customizable options make it an indispensable tool for project managers and teams.

Work breakdown structure: Frequently asked questions

What is the importance of a WBS in project management?

A WBS clarifies the project’s scope, and breaking the project into manageable components helps prevent scope creep. A WBS establishes a solid foundation for accurate project estimation and efficient resource allocation.

What are some challenges in creating a WBS?

One key challenge when creating a WBS is defining the right level of detail for the project—too much or too little can hinder effective management. Another common challenge is handling changing requirements. To address these challenges, involve stakeholders in the planning process and adapt as needed.

How does a WBS contribute to project scope management?

A WBS contributes to project scope management by identifying deliverables, managing change, and keeping the project focused on its intended outcomes.

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