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What’s the right level of detail in a WBS?
By Samuel BrownGlobal Knowledge

The work breakdown structure (WBS) is defined by the PMBOK, 3rd Ed. as “a deliverable-oriented decomposition of work to be executed by the project team to accomplish project objectives and create the required deliverables. It organizes the total scope of the project.The deliverable orientation of the hierarchy includes both internal and external deliverables.” While this definition provides clarity with regard to the composition and focus of the WBS it falls short of specific guidance in sizing the detail of the WBS. The WBS should provide increasing detail about the total scope of the project until that scope can be clearly communicated and effectively managed. Knowing when this level of detail has been reached is, of course, the trick.

The Practice Standard for Work Breakdown Structure, offers some questions for determining the appropriate level of detail:

  • Are clear, objective criteria missing for measuring progress for the WBS element?
  • Does the WBS element contain more than one deliverable?
  • Can a portion of the work to be performed within the WBS element be scheduled as a unit?
  • Is the WBS element clearly and completely understood to the satisfaction of the project manager, project team members, and other stakeholders-including the customer?
  • Is more than one individual or group responsible for the WBS element?
  • Is there a stakeholder interested in analyzing status and performance of only a portion of the work covered by the WBS element?
  • Can progress of the work be assessed as needed?

The level of detail in the WBS is driven by considerations of the project size, complexity and level of control required by the project manager. The questions suggested by the WBS Practice Standard all point to the need for a level of detail that will support clear communication about project work and clear assignment of responsibility for the work deliverables.

This article was originally published in Global Knowledge’s Business Brief e-newsletter. Global Knowledge delivers comprehensive hands-on project management, business process, and professional skills training. Visit our online Knowledge Center at www.globalknowledge.com/business for free white papers, webinars, and more.

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