25 March, 2024

Work Breakdown Structure: How to Build One Effortlessly 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.

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 grouping and the logical flow between tasks
Work Breakdown Structure: How to Build One Effortlessly with a Mind Map

The tool of choice for understanding what you need to do to complete your project is the Work Breakdown Structure – or WBS. It does precisely what its name suggests:

A WBS breaks your work down into a structure.

Our Agenda

In this article, We will look at:

So, let’s get started!

What is a Work Breakdown Structure?

I answer this question in this short video…

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. From 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.

Going straight to a Gantt Chart is like starting to cook a four-course meal without an ingredient list. via @OnlinePMCourses 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

In thinking about how to create a Work Breakdown Structure, we need to consider whether your project is primarily:

  1. Large, complex, and formal, or
  2. Small, simple, and informal

This is because there is a formal way to develop a Work Breakdown structure for big and formal projects. But, for most projects – and most project managers – this isn’t going to be necessary. Most Project Managers are ‘accidental project managers’. That is, managers or professionals who find themselves needing to lead a project, alongside a day-to-day operational role. For you, if you’re one of them, you probably won’t need a formal approach. However, understanding both is useful.

If, on the other hand, you are leading a large, complex, and formal Project – or you aspire to be a full-time, professional Project Manager – you need to know the formal way to create a WBS.

Informal Approach to Creating a Work Breakdown Structure: Create a Bottom-up WBS

A common approach to creating a simple WBS is this:

  1. Brainstorm every task you can think of, and write each one onto a sticky note
  2. Place the sticky notes onto a large board
  3. Start to cluster the notes so related tasks sit together
  4. Rearrange the small clusters, so related clusters are nearby
  5. Create headings for each cluster
  6. Continue until your project has from 3 to 9 big clusters (ideally no more than 7)

Note that there is now a wide range of online collaboration tools (like Miro, Mural, and Figma) that allow you to run this process remotely.

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. Its shortcoming is that it lacks rigor – one forgotten (or lost) sticky note will leave a gap in your project.

Create a WBS with a Mind Map: Work Breakdown Structure
Work Breakdown Structure

Formal Approach to Creating a 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?’

For a detailed explanation of this approach, here is a video. It will be hugely valuable to any PM who needs to create a big WBS and wants to ensure your team does it rigorously.

This is the approach you will use 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 or project definition.

The Simplicity of A Mind Map

It was Tony Buzan who refined and popularised our current use of Mind Maps. However, 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 analog (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 description, in the middle.
  • From the center, draw big branches to the main associated ideas or sub-themes. These are the big areas of your project.
  • From each of the associated themes, split off smaller sub-branches to capture subsidiary ideas and divisions of the subject. This is going to divide each part of your project into smaller and smaller components.
Create a WBS with a Mind Map: Mind Map
Mind Map

Tony Buzan emphasizes the value of using color, shape, images, and a variety of line types and fonts. His purpose is primarily to use Mind Maps to help with creative thinking 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 slightly different approach. But I will leave commenting on this until after I’ve discussed how to create a WBS with a Mind map, because that is going to be an important way to 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 either project activities, or components of the final product, 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 or components. It encourages you to use color 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, straight lines, or fixed sequences. It’s easy to slip in an extra element, or to 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 noticing faults, making changes, 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 it is foolish to think your WBS is perfect. But your mind is not as logical as you’d like to believe. So, do yourself a favor 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 do not 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 tools 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. But it’s also in a range of modern PM software tools, like ClickUp.
  2. Mind Mapping tools that do nothing else, and simply produce a Mind Map
    Examples include MindMeister and Coggle, 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 in the form of 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 Some of the Best Options for Mindmapping Software that Exports to a WBS

Note, I have not tested any of these tools and I have no relationship with any of these businesses. These are simply the tools I found from some desk research.

In no particular order:

MindGenius

MindView by MatchWare

MindManager

EasyProject

This one is a full PM tool that properly implements going from a mind map to a WBS.

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 paper and converted my Mind Map to a WBS by hand.

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.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

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 ProjectManager.com 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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