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Can WBS be used in Agile?

WBS, which stands for work breakdown structure, is a popular model that is used across many different branches of project management. It is often presented as a simple flow chart. The main goal of a WBS is to break complex projects down into smaller chunks that are easier to manage. 

WBS is often associated with traditional project management methodologies such as Waterfall, where tasks are interdependent and goals are not expected to change. Because WBS is suited to this predictive framework, some believe that it is not flexible enough to match the Agile mindset

However, WBS can be a highly useful tool in an Agile methodology. Teams can use an Agile work breakdown structure to simplify large epics, breaking them down into smaller units: themes, stories, and tasks. These user stories are often connected via the process of story mapping, which forms a hierarchy and helps to create a holistic view of the project. This is complementary to the hierarchy of the WBS, which can be tailored to suit an Agile project.

For the Scrum methodology, in particular, an Agile WBS can be used at the beginning of every sprint. This will help to define each small task, so Agile team members know exactly what they are working on. It can also help with assigning the right resources to these tasks. An Agile WBS can be refined after each sprint in line with the Agile value of continuous improvement.

Agile WBS example

Richard Faris and Ibrahim Adshelfi of Primavera Systems shared their use of an Agile work breakdown structure in a 2006 article for the Project Management Institute. They wrote: “Our Agile development processes are tied to the heart of project management, the work breakdown structure (WBS). There is a defined structure and clear areas of ownership within the WBS that provide the framework for implementing Agile processes in our software.”

They used the Agile WBS for their Scrum teams in the following way:

  1. Top level: Function
  2. Second level: Features
  3. Third level: Requirements
  4. Bottom level: Activities 

 Let’s look at an example of an Agile software development project that you could apply this particular WBS to: creating a new website. 

  • Function: A user-friendly website
  • Features: Filtered search, newsletter prompt, social media links
  • Requirements: Display filter icons on the search bar, add newsletter pop-up to the home page, create social media icons
  • Activities: Write code for above requirements