Say you’re planning an important event, such as a wedding or family vacation. What are some of the first steps you’d take? You’d figure out where it was going to be, who was going to attend, how long it would last, and what activities everyone would do. Managing a project is no different. Some of your first steps are determining what work will be done, who is going to handle which tasks, and how long the work will take. 

Project Schedule vs. the Work Breakdown Structure

The work breakdown structure (WBS) is an important building block of your project schedule. It is a hierarchical reflection of all the work that needs to be done to create the deliverables, or end products, of a project. The main difference between the project schedule and the WBS is that the WBS focuses on deliverables, while the schedule is more comprehensive, including resource requirements and assignments, timelines and durations, assumptions, and risks. 

There are differing views on the WBS among project management experts and organizations. They have varied opinions regarding whether the WBS is an independent document from the project schedule, and to what degree work is broken down. It's up to your organization to decide how to handle the WBS.

“The project schedule relates to the work breakdown structure in that they are inherently one and the same if utilized efficiently,” says Alona Rudnitsky, Managing Partner at digital marketing agency Helix House. “The two complement each other, resulting in clear communication, tasks, and goals.”

Other project management experts do not distinguish between the two documents, but rather, simply include the WBS as one section of the project schedule.

“The project schedule is the WBS. Other project management experts do not distinguish between the two documents, but rather, simply include the WBS as one section of the project schedule." ~Cerila Gailliard, Certified Project Manager Professional Consultant at consultancy Orchestrating Your Success (OYS) LLC.

However, you choose to approach project scheduling, create the WBS starting with the ultimate goal of the project. Then use the process of decomposition to break work down into smaller chunks that are easier to track and manage. There are various levels of decomposition that may be used: Some organizations only describe deliverables in their WBS, saving more granular descriptions of work for the schedule. Others break down deliverables into lists of specific tasks or activities in the WBS itself. 

For example, in a project where the ultimate goal is producing a new household appliance, the marketing strategy for the product might be one of the deliverables. Some organizations would stop there, and save the breakdown of marketing strategy tasks for the schedule. Other organizations would break the marketing strategy down further into such tasks as creating advertising brochures and TV commercials. 

Sumit Bansal, Founder of Excel training platform Trump Excel, uses the WBS to break down tasks but also suggests using both the WBS and the project schedule, presenting different documents to different audiences. Bansal advises, “As a good practice, when you are discussing the project with high-level executives, use the project schedule, but when you work with client teams or project-level personnel, use [the] work breakdown structure.” 

Tasks or activities are the lowest-level components of work that may be included in a WBS. Which of these terms is used may also vary by the organization: Some classify “tasks” as groups of activities, with “activities” being the lowest level of work; other organizations do the opposite, and still others use only choose one of these terms to describe the smallest work item. The terms “control accounts” or “summary tasks” may be used to describe levels of decomposition that contain multiple tasks.

If you do include tasks or activities in your WBS, each should only have one owner. This not only keeps the document organized, it also helps you determine whether further decomposition is needed. If a task/activity is too much for a single owner to handle, then you know you need to break that work item up even more. 

Finally, some organizations create “activity lists” that are independent of both the WBS and the project schedule. These outline all the deliverables from the WBS as well as the specific activities required to produce them. Again, you can choose the method that is right for your organization and project.

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About the Author(s)

 Cerila  Gailliard, PMP, CSM

Cerila Gailliard (PMP), is an accomplished Certified Project Manager Professional. She provides solution based project services for businesses. She has designed a program to Calibrate, Compose and Cultivate successful business solutions which are unique to each business. Her intuitive leadership has empowered teams to collaborate and carry projects into completion. Her stellar performance...

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