Creating an effective WBS with facilitated team involvement


Senior Project Manager, The United Illuminating Company, New Haven, CT


The work breakdown structure (WBS) is a foundation tool for effective project management and yet its creation is often undertaken without appropriate team involvement or buy-in. The scope of a project and the totality of the work are defined in the WBS, and failing to do so early can result in rework, schedule impacts, resource misallocations, and budget increases. Moving the WBS creation to the beginning of the project, even as early as the team kickoff, and involving the whole team can have a noticeable impact in decreasing the risk level of your projects and increasing your chances for success.

Adopting an effective WBS creation methodology can refine your requirements gathering and accelerate some early team building. It also has the added bonus of shortening the process and engaging the team in the work, which will lighten the load on the project manager. These and other benefits of a good WBS remedy some of the top reasons given for project failure—poor project management methodology, poor requirements, misalignment of team expectations, poor change control, and inadequate schedules and budgets.

This paper will discuss some key WBS concepts from the Project Management Institute's (PMI) work breakdown standard and lay out a practical methodology used successfully for creating a WBS by facilitating the early involvement of the project team. Any discipline you put around this process will improve the quality and usefulness of the WBS in your project planning, which should enhance the overall quality of your projects.


This paper is based on the practical experiences from our company program to improve the capabilities of our project managers and provide them with practical training, tools, and techniques that can be immediately applied to their projects.

As part of our adoption of PMI's methodology, we adopted the premise that time spent on creating an effective WBS early will pay dividends later in a project.

Every project has a WBS, just like they all have schedules and budgets. They aren't always well done or even written down, but every project manager has some idea of what they are doing, how long they think it will take and how much they think it will cost. Clearly, without some discipline around refining these project planning deliverables, it will be hard to manage the triple constraints of your project, and this will limit your ability as a project manager to ensure the success of your project.

Some assumptions were made early in the development of this process:

  • A good WBS is important for defining the scope of a project.
  • The WBS is the major input into the creation of the project schedule, budget, and risk plan.
  • The more you involve your team in the creation of the WBS, the more they will understand the scope of the project and their role in its delivery.

These, of course, are aligned with the practices and principles laid out in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (PMI, 2004). In addition to the WBS content in earlier editions, the Third Edition modified several chapters, especially those on Scope (Chapter 5) and Cost (Chapter 7), to expand and/or clarify the importance of the WBS in these knowledge areas. These additions validated the work done to improve the quality of our WBS and expand its use as a driver for the fundamentals in the project plan.

Our approach was to develop a straightforward and easily implemented training course to improve understanding of the WBS for all project team members and to build the capabilities of our project managers in using a structured and more standardized approach to the WBS in overall project planning. This approach would serve as a teambuilding exercise on individual projects, while building our bench strength for future projects. This approach ultimately centered on two activities:

  • Training the entire team on the basic principles for generating and utilizing a WBS.
  • Facilitating the team's involvement in the creation of the WBS as early in a project as possible.

The following sections of the paper will lay out the details of this approach and give you some of the content we have worked into our program. If your organization can benefit from some added discipline in the application of the methodology, then hopefully this paper will provide a framework you can adapt to your organization if improving the quality of your WBS will improve your project management capabilities.

Training on the Basics

One of our early findings in inconsistent project management methodology implementation was that WBS creation and usage was not clearly understood by most members of our project teams and even some of our project managers. The summary tasks created in our project development software were often substituted for the WBS, and the number of tasks was used as a metric for the level of quality of this “WBS.” Lots of summary tasks equated with a high-quality WBS. The skill level of the project manager was usually the determining factor in how well the summary tasks aligned with an acceptable WBS.

To close this gap, one goal of our WBS rollout was getting to everyone working on a project the basic information on what constitutes a good WBS and how it is used in project planning. This approach would reinforce some of the Planning Phase activities to get them a better WBS for their projects and feed the subsequent components of the plan; specifically the schedule, budget, and risk plan.

This introductory WBS class evolved into a one- to two-hour overview, which could be presented as needed in either a standalone format as part of our ongoing capabilities improvement curriculum, or customized to be included as part of a project kick-off or team exercise in an active project.

Without going into too much detail on the content, which can be derived from the Practice Standard for Work Breakdown Structures (PMI, 2006), our course focuses on the following key points:

  • The WBS focuses on the deliverables of a project.
  • The WBS is a hierarchical representation of all of the deliverables (work) of a project. It is the “WHAT” of the project. (This is the 100% Rule—if it's not in the WBS, it's not in the project.)
  • Components of successive levels of the WBS have similar levels of detail.
  • The WBS is a communications tool with your stakeholders and will be the key input into major components of your project plan.

Facilitation Tools and Techniques

A second finding that came out very quickly in looking at how our PM methodology was being rolled out was that most WBSs were being created by the project manager and presented to the project team as a fait accompli. This was obviously at odds with commonly accepted best practices for involving those who will be doing the work in the planning of that work. This approach improves results by increasing the buy-in of the team in the project deliverables.

A component of our WBS class was to present both the team and the project manager with some techniques to facilitate everyone's involvement in the creation process. This was targeted to this process and not intended to be a full-blown facilitation class.

Some of the reasons given by project managers for creating the WBS by themselves will give some insight into issues that need to be addressed in some of the pre-session facilitation. The reasons we commonly encountered did not yield a lot of surprises:

  1. “It's easier to do it myself.”
  2. “I’m not a teacher. (I don't want to teach a class about the WBS.)”
  3. “The team isn't assigned until I already have a lot of this done.”
  4. “That touchy-feely stuff doesn't help me get my projects done.”

Using a standard sales technique of “preparing for objections,” we addressed these concerns one at a time.

1. You have to acknowledge it usually is easier to do some tasks yourself. The trick is to get people who are reluctant to delegate or involve the team to acknowledge two key findings: a group almost always produces a better result than an individual, and a loss of early buy-in by the team impacts productivity. Both of these can result in rework and/or added tasks. Our continually repeated sound bite for selling this point is, “Following the methodology results in a better WBS and ultimately less work for the project manager and less frustration for the team.”

2. Once we have agreement on #1, it is an easy sell to have the PMO teach the class. The project manager does not have to lose time working on the class, gets points as a leader by being able to offer training to the team and can participate freely in the exercise. The team gets some training and builds ownership by inclusion early in the process, which should ease any needed communications when conflicts arise later in the project.

3. Teams often aren't assigned as early as a project manager would like, or team makeup can change dramatically in the course of a project. The WBS is presented as a tool that can be created and revisited at any point in a project, with emphasis placed on doing it as early as possible. Even a fully formed WBS created by the project manager can be opened to the team for review to help build team buy-in, if the project manager is ready to give up ownership and allow any changes necessary.

4. We never advocate “touchy-feely” exercises, we advocate exercises that give results. This “soft” argument is usually made when someone hasn't been sold on the ability of the WBS to help effectively plan project planning. Keeping the training short and sweet, with hardcore results produced quickly, usually puts this concern to rest.

Running the WBS Creation Session

The planning and organization for the WBS session comes down to a short checklist for the facilitator:

  • Hold the session as soon as possible after the core team is identified.
  • Run the team through the WBS training class during or prior to the session, to be sure everyone has the same foundational knowledge.
  • Meet with the PM prior to the meeting to review the Project Charter and verify the project scope descriptions and goals.
  • Set the expectations you and the project manager have for the session.
  • Require attendance by key team members. Contact them prior to the meeting to ascertain if there will be any issues at the meeting, so you’ll have time to address them early.
  • Get a comfortable room, have appropriate refreshments, and be sure you have all your tools on hand -sticky notes, markers, and tape are a must. A digital camera is great for final documentation.
  • Send out an email prior to the meeting to all attendees that lists the purpose of the meeting, a short description of the format, the desired outcome, and asks for verification that all key attendees have been invited.

We have found the following to be helpful as a guide for running these types of meetings:

  • Review the meeting agenda and the roles for facilitator and participants.
  • Do your regular “good meeting management” activities, such as introductions and setting ground rules. A quick web search will supply additional input here if needed.
  • Clearly restate the session objective from the previous email.
  • Do a high-level review of the WBS class material if actually going through the training is not part of the session.
  • Review the Project Description, Scope Statement, Goals and Deliverables from the Project Charter.
  • The Project Title is often the Level 1 element and the Charter Deliverables are often used for the Level 2 elements. These can be pre-filled to kick-start the process.
  • Start employing a simple facilitation technique in each of these steps by asking for agreement. The simple statement “Do you agree with this?” is very powerful if you expect and wait for an answer. “Are we missing anything?” should be the follow-up.
  • Work the WBS one level at a time. Keeping everything at the same level of detail as much as you can. This keeps the team from taking the areas they are comfortable with to great detail and leaving other areas unexplored.
  • Liberally use the “Parking Lot,” where you list (park) topics that are important but distracting from the immediate task of the group. These will be revisited at the end of the meeting.
  • Before moving on to the next level of the WBS, ask, “If we do everything on this level and only what is listed on this level, have we accomplished the previous level?” This is the verification of the progressive elaboration, which is critical to an effective WBS.
  • In deciding whether you need to go to an additional level of detail, ask, “If you are put in charge of this deliverable, do you need to break it down to more detail to manage the work?”

There are many tools and techniques to aid facilitators: brainstorming, fishbone, Pareto diagram, mind maps, and so forth. The one we have used the most effectively with our WBS creation is the affinity diagram. This modified brainstorming technique is used in the subsequent breakdown of a higher level component with the simple instruction: “What are the things we need to do, to do this high-level thing.”

The basic instructions for using the affinity diagram are:

  • Everyone has big sticky notes and a medium-sized marker.
  • The facilitator focuses everyone on the WBS component to be “decomposed.”
  • Without talking, everyone writes about 4 to 7 things they think are the major elements of the higher level component that is being addressed.
  • Once they are done, everyone (again without speaking) posts their stickies on a wall and begins arranging them into logical groups (for example, all those relating to managing the process in one group; all those talking about procuring materials in another.)
  • Once the logical groups have settled, have the team come up with a heading (title) for each group. These titles represent the next level of deliverables in the WBS.
  • For each sticky under a group heading, ask, “Is this an example of the heading or is it a part of what makes up the heading?” If it is part of the heading, then it is a logical candidate for inclusion in the next level of the WBS.

The higher you are in the WBS, the more likely the affinity diagram process will give you elements that go down several levels, as some team members give input that is at a lower level of detail than you need at this point.

The Facilitator Responsibilities

The facilitator has a highly repetitive role in the creation of the WBS. At each level they ask, “Is this all we need to do at this level?” Then they take each component in that level and break it down into its major components, using the same process. When team consensus is reached that no additional detail is required to manage the work effectively, the WBS is done (for now).

Spelling out this role to the team often makes acceptance of the often repeated questions and requests easier. It also gives everyone a clear idea of what is expected of them, and that the WBS being created is their responsibility.

Some of the facilitator points to let the team know about are:

  • Engage everyone – the whole team owns the WBS and is responsible for its quality. No one can remain quiet.
  • Ask for agreement and wait for a response. Words have power; getting a verbal response adds to the ownership of the decision.
  • Check with the team that anything written by the facilitator agrees with what the speaker intended.
  • Restate the desired outcome periodically to keep the focus of the discussions and the meeting on track.
  • Keep the team looking forward. (“Is this enough to get us to a good schedule?” “Can we budget at this level?”)

Putting This to Use

In an effort to give you some easily usable content, the layout of our current class is provided below. The intent of the key slides is summarized (in italics) which you can quickly adapt to your organization.

Our preference is to run the class with an internal project manager from our project office. This gives a consistency to the presentation and content and provides a single point of contact for future questions or needed refreshers.

WBS Short Course Outline
  1. Agenda Review and Meeting Management Items
  2. Presentation Objectives

    Clearly state objectives and answer the question, “Why are we giving this class?”

  3. Background Information on the WBS

    a. Definitions

    State the WBS definition from the PMBOK® Guide and contrast with any perceived definitions within the company.

    b. WBS Basics

    Using the Practice Standard for Work Breakdowns Structures from PMI as a guide, we lay out several slides covering the basics of the WBS.

    c. How the WBS is used

    Using the WBS as an input into the schedule, budget, and risk plan is demonstrated to reinforce the dependencies of these critical deliverables on the WBS.

    d. Examples

    Show some examples of good and not-so-good WBSs from actual completed projects, and the impact each had on the success of the project.

  4. Team Involvement

    Explain the importance of involving the team in the development of the WBS and the dividends this teambuilding can pay throughout the project.

  5. Creation Methodology

    This section is a series of slides that lays out the basics of the WBS creation process.

    1. When to Start
    2. Who to Involve
    3. What to Include

    This section is tied to the format and principles laid out in the Practice Standard for Work Breakdown Structures.

  6. Facilitation Tools and Techniques

    To help avoid any surprises, the team is introduced to the tools and techniques they can expect to use in the creation of the WBS.

    1. Prep Steps
    2. Affinity Diagram
    3. Sticky Notes Rule
    4. Key Questions
    5. Progressive Elaboration
  7. Class Exercise

    This is an exercise in the creation of a simple WBS down to level 4 using a generic topic. It is facilitated/directed by the instructor and gives the team a chance to use everything presented earlier in class. As a learning exercise, it helps to cement the tools and techniques and expose in a neutral environment any potential learning gaps. A generic topic allows the team to focus on the exercise without getting caught up in the technical details.

  8. Pitfalls to Avoid

    Quick list of your top reasons WBS creation gets off track.

  9. Summation

    Review that the agenda was covered and the desired outcome achieved.

Closing Comments

Our commitment to improve our project management capabilities started with the premise that successful projects plans are built on the foundation created by an effective WBS. Making our teams and project managers more skilled at creating and using a WBS produces efficiencies throughout the whole project planning process and leads to higher levels of success.

By providing a framework for introducing their teams to WBS concepts and facilitating the involvement of the team in the WBS creation, project managers can reap benefits not only in schedule and budget development, but also in project communication, risk management, and conflict resolution.


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© 2007, Charles Jones
Originally published as a part of 2007 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Atlanta, GA



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