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The Secret to creating a WBS with a Mind Map

Blog - Create a WBS with a Mind Map

One of the most under-used Project Management tools of all is the Work Breakdown Structure, or WBS. For some reason, it seems to intimidate new Project Managers. Yet it is nothing more than a listing of everything you need to do in a structured way. And there is one very friendly and familiar tool that many people use, which can do this for you. In this article, you’ll learn how to create a WBS with a Mind Map.

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Blog - Create a WBS with a Mind Map

Create a WBS with a Mind Map

The Value of a Work Breakdown Structure

Everyone seems to know about Gantt Charts, even if they don’t know the name. They have become the’ project planning tool. Indeed, they are almost a symbol for Project Management. This means that new Project Managers often rush to create a Gantt Chart. But without first giving enough thought to what tasks you need to do, your Gantt Chart risks two big problems:

  1. Gaps with tasks missed out
  2. Poor logic in the groping and logical flow between tasks

The tool of choice for understanding what you need to do to complete your project is the Work Breakdown Structure. It literally does what its name suggests: it breaks your work down into a structure.

The reason to use a WBS before you create your Gantt Chart is focus. It allows you to focus on one thing at a time: the tasks to be done. The Gantt Chart process puts together tasks, sequence and duration. Once you have all of your tasks developed in your WBS, you can cluster them into logical groups. Building a WBS with a mind Map makes this part especially easy. Form there, you can estimate how long each task will take, and the resources it will need. And finally, you can put them into a logical sequence.

Going straight to a Gantt Chart is like starting to cook a four course meal without an ingredient list or a recipe.

A Gantt Chart without a WBS is like cooking a 4 course meal without ingredient list or recipe. Click To Tweet

In an earlier article, How to Get Better Project Management Results, I listed ten valuable tools. If I were to choose an eleventh, it would be the Work Breakdown Structure.

How to Create a WBS

A common approach to creating a simple WBS is this:

  • Brainstorm every task and write it onto a sticky note
  • Place the sticky notes onto a board
  • Start to cluster the notes so related tasks sit together
  • Rearrange the small clusters, so related clusters are nearby
  • Create headings for each cluster
  • Continue until your project has from 3 to 9 big clusters (ideally no more than 7)

This is a ‘bottom-up’ approach to creating a WBS. For small, simple projects, it is perfectly adequate. It is especially good as a team exercise, to engage your Project Team early on. It’s shortcoming is that it lacks rigour – one forgotten (or lost) sticky note leaves a gap in your project.

Create a WBS with a Mind Map: Work Breakdown Structure

Work Breakdown Structure

Create a Top Down WBS

Formal Project Management uses a ‘top-down’ approach to creating a WBS. You start with the goal of the project and break it into big areas of work. And then, you break down each area into successively smaller and smaller activities, until you get to the simplest tasks. In principle, you should be more rigorous this way. This is because, at each step, you can check: ‘have I missed anything?’

This is the approach you get when you create a WBS with a Mind Map. We will see why this is shortly, once we’ve looked at what a Mind Map is. But there is  another reason to create a WBS with a Mind Map: it also allows you to work collaboratively and engage your Project Team. Indeed, in a world where sticky notes are starting to feel like the default approach to a facilitated session, a change of approach is refreshing.

Work Breakdown Structure gives you your Scope

Whether you choose to plan your WBS in a top-down or bottom-up approach, the outcome is a full definition of your scope, at the bottom level of your WBS. This is vital, because your scope is a pivotal part of your project brief.

The Simplicity of A Mind Map

It was Tony Buzan who refined and popularised our current use of Mind Maps. But the underlying idea of a concept map is very old. And there are many variants in use today, like Work Breakdown Structures, that have differing layouts and approaches. Another example is Fishbone Diagrams.

There are many descriptions of how to build a Mind Map. Here is my approach to doing an analogue (pen and paper) version:

  • Get a big piece of blank paper and some nice pens
  • Start with your theme or topic or, in our case, your project, in the middle.
  • From the centre, draw big branches to the main associated ideas or sub-themes.
  • From the each of the associated themes, split off smaller sub-branches to capture subsidiary ideas and divisions of the subject.
Create a WBS with a Mind Map: Mind Map

Mind Map

Tony Buzan emphasises the value of using colour, shape, images, and a variety of line-types and fonts. His purpose is primarily to use Mind Maps for creativity and memory. For you, especially if you want to create a WBS with a Mind Map, the words are what will matter most.

Mind Mapping Software

It’ll come as no surprise to you to hear that there is a thriving market in Mind Mapping software. There are many vendors, each taking a different approach. But I will leave comment until after I’ve discussed how to create a WBS with a Mind map, because that is going to be an important way to I distinguish competitors, for you as a Project manager.

The Power of Creating a WBS with a Mind Map

A Work Breakdown Structure is a logical and rigorous tool for articulating your project scope. It places activities in a logical hierarchy and assigns unique numbers to them. It is a great tool for rational, systematic thinkers.

A Mind Map uses a spatial metaphor to represent the relationships between ideas: in our case, activities. It encourages you to use colour and symbols as well as text and lines. It therefore appeals nicely to intuitive and divergent thinkers, who find a more systematic approach off-putting.

But the nice thing is that a Mind Map can represent exactly the same information as a WBS, preserving all the same relationship information. This means you can create any WBS with a Mind Map. And you can do so using any form of technology: pen and paper or software app. You can work on your own, or with your team.

The Benefits of Being Messy

But, for me, there is one big benefit to creating my WBS with a Mind Map: it’s messy. What I like is that Mind Maps don’t have rules or straight lines, or fixed sequences. It’s easy to slip in an extra element,or move a link, without feeling that you are ‘spoiling’ some of the orderly structure. This is important, because humans are seduced by beauty. A neat, tidy, logical WBS is compelling to us… even beautiful. This creates a psychological barrier with finding faults, and adding new items. We resist making changes because we fall for the planning fallacy of seeing a neat WBS and believing it is therefore, somehow ‘right’.

I know you know this is rubbish. But your mind is not as logical as you’d like to believe. So do yourself a favour and keep your planning documents messy for as long as possible. This way, you preserve your willingness to tinker, cut, change and add to them, without worrying that you are spoiling your lovely work. And when you create your WBS with a Mind map, this is exactly what you do. Especially if you make no attempt to ‘tidy up’ your Mind Map.

You Don’t Need to Tidy up Your Mind Map

You don’t need to tidy up your Mind Map because it is not – and never will be – a document to present to anyone. It is a working tool. It is a stage on the way to creating your WBS and nothing more. Consequently, when you create your WBS with a Mind Map, it is your WBS that counts.

The Software Tools to Create a WBS with a Mind Map

So you’ve got the principle of how you can create a WBS with a mind map, but how easy do software tools make it? Well, put simply, there are three types of software tool to consider:

  1. Software that will create WBS, either as a stand-alone function, or as part of a suite of Project Management and Project Planning capabilities.
    The commonest example is Microsoft Project, which is a powerful project planning and monitoring tool, which has WBS planning as an integral part of the tool.
  2. Mind Mapping tools that do nothing else, and simply produce a Mind Map
    An example is Simple Mind, but there are very many of these tools.
  3. Mind Mapping tools that export their data into WBS format

It is the last of these that you can most easily use to create a WBS with a mind map. What they allow you to do is create a graphical mind map, and then export the data from your mind map into a format that allows you to easily create a WBS. Usually, this is as a CSV (Comma Separated variable) file, that can be read by a spreadsheet program like Excel, Numbers or Sheets. Ideally, it will create standard WBS format numbering when it does so.

Here are Four of the Main players


Available for Windows and Mac

Flexibility: High

30-day Free Trial

Priced per licence at ‘enterprise pricing levels’

Mind Vector

Available for Mac, iOS, Android, and Browser

Flexibility: Medium

Free tier (limited usage – full functions)

Priced at ‘small user pricing levels’ with enterprise option


Available for Windows, Mac and Cloud

Flexibility: Very High

30-day Free Trial

Priced per licence at ‘enterprise pricing levels’


Available for Windows, Linux, and Mac

Flexibility: Very High

Free tier (limited functions)

Priced at ‘small user pricing levels’

In Conclusion

This is not a full evaluation. But, in conclusion, if you want to build your WBS with a Mind Map, there are plenty of good tools around. In the past, I have used pen and paer and converted my Mind Map to a WBS by hand. Mind Vector kindly sent me an evaluation licence to their product and I have enjoyed using it. It has certainly made it much quicker to put together my own WBS with a Mind Map.

Over to You…

Do you create your WBS with a Mind Map?

If so, what tips do you have and what tools do you use? Have you used any of the tools I have listed and, if so, what is your experience?

Let us know in the comments below.

About the Author Mike Clayton

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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