WBS Charter Easy 3-Min Explanation

Learn what is a WBS Charter in this full guide, explaining also WBS chart and Project Charter

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If you want to know what a WBS charter is, you are in the right place. This guide will explain everything you need to know about WBS charter in project management. Let’s get started!

What is a WBS charter?

If you are here, probably someone mentioned to you “WBS charter” at work and you wonder what they were talking about. We should explain the two parts: “WBS” and “charter”.

Let’s start by saying that the Project Management Institute, the non-profit organization defining standards for Project Managers has no definition of WBS charter. That is, “WBS charter” is not a term project managers use, and it is not accepted in the best practices. Having said that, we can refer to a few things when we say “WBS charter”.

The WBS, short for “Work Breakdown Structure”, is the list of tasks you have in a project. You can call it “WBS” or “WBS chart” (but not “charter” normally). Someone talking about the WBS charter may refer to the WBS chart instead.

The other part of the definition is the word “charter”. This is what we use to define the document that authorizes the start of a project. It defines why it is needed, how it will be funded, and at a high level what is to be done. We call this “project charter”, or “program charter” if it addresses a collection of related projects. Sometimes, however, simply say “the charter” for convenience.

WBS, WBS chart, project charter, and program charter are all accredited terms for PMI.org. Let’s explore in further detail all those aspects so that you can learn what someone meant by “WBS Charter”.

Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)

The Work Breakdown Structure is a document that decomposes work into smaller and more manageable tasks. For example, your goal may be to build a new house. That is your ultimate deliverable, and you can accomplish it with a single task named “build the house”. However, such a task is too generic to convey any information.

With the WBS, you start to think about the sub-tasks that are present in your larger task. For example, building the house may be broken down into excavating the foundation, create building structure, add piping, paint, and so on. In turn, “add piping” can be further broken down in connecting to the city sewage system, installing internal pipes, install sinks, certify the sanity of the installation and so on. And we can keep diving further, for example breaking down the certification in inspection and getting city permit document.

The WBS looks like a tree. At the top, you have your main task, and all its sub-tasks branch out of that. From each of those tasks, all its sub-tasks branch off consequently, and so on until you reach the leaves of the tree, tasks that cannot be decomposed any further. We call those leaves work packages, and you should have a clear idea about what are the criteria to stop decomposing a task.

This is a standard Work Breakdown Structure, or WBS. We call this WBS chart, but not WBS charter. Sometimes, you can include this representation of tasks in the project charter, creating the WBS charter in this way.
An example WBS charter about an aircraft system (image credit Wikipedia.org).

For example, you may have a rule that says, “the forecasted effort for a work package must be between 4 and 40 hours”. If a task is higher than that, it must be decomposed. If it is less than that, it is probably too detailed and must be aggregated.

Since the WBS is a “tree-like chart”, we call it WBS chart, but not WBS charter. However, some people may mistake the two terms, and use WBS charter to refer to the WBS itself. Typically, when they show you what they mean, it is immediately clear if they refer to the WBR or to something else.

One more tip, the WBS should focus on deliverables, rather than on the tasks needed to accomplish them. It breaks down the work output, and not input. So, instead of having “building piping infrastructure”, the item on the cart should be “piping infrastructure”, the outcome of the work of building it.

Project Charter

Unlike the WBS, which is a chart, the project charter is a document. Yes, a piece of text, typically written in Word and maybe exported to PDF or printed. This document has one main purpose: authorize the project.

For any company or organization, a project is a cost, as it requires time and allocation of resources (equipment, people, money). So, any project should be authorized by someone who has the power to say “okay, let’s spend company resources in this way”. Instead of just saying that, that person produces the project charter.

The person authorizing a project (and who has the power to kill it) has a special name in project management. We call her the project sponsor, or simply sponsor. The sponsor creates this document, which outlines what are the high-level expectations for this project, including what should be delivered, and an expected timeline and budget range. Once this document is finalized, the project is assigned a project manager, which will have to develop the rest of the project, including the WBS.

Normally, in the project charter, we do not break down the work into smaller tasks, not significantly at least. If the ultimate goal is to build a house, the project charter will specify just that, without worrying about the sub-tasks. Instead, it will focus on the requirements for success. Those may be things like “it must have two floors”, “it must be placed by the lake”, or “it needs to have two bathrooms, once of which directly connected to the bedroom”.

However, the project charter may specify some additional details regarding sub-tasks. For example, even if we don’t know precisely (yet) how we will break down the work, we may say “any piping activity should be performed by company X, because we know they do their job well”.

So, we can say that the project charter comes first, and the WBS chart comes some time after the charter is approved.

WBS Charter: Merging WBS and Project Charter

PMI provides guidance on how to manage projects, but the best guidance of all is that you need to do what works for your specific use case. Best practices are an indication, but they are not hard rules. This is where the WBS charter comes from.

Sometimes, when you start working on the project charter, you realize it makes sense to decompose work in that document. This may be the case when the project is small enough that having a separate WBS chart is not necessary. Or, it may be the case when the project is so big that you want to decompose it into separate projects, and subsequently create a charter for each. Another use case of that is when you are performing outsourcing work, and your customer (approving the charter) wants reassurance on how the work will be broken down.

In all those cases, you end up merging the project charter with the WBS. This is when you create the WBS charter. On it, you may also want to clarify responsibilities, so you may want to add a RACI matrix.

Picture of Alessandro Maggio

Alessandro Maggio

Project manager, critical-thinker, passionate about networking & coding. I believe that time is the most precious resource we have, and that technology can help us not to waste it. I founded ICTShore.com with the same principle: I share what I learn so that you get value from it faster than I did.
Picture of Alessandro Maggio

Alessandro Maggio

Project manager, critical-thinker, passionate about networking & coding. I believe that time is the most precious resource we have, and that technology can help us not to waste it. I founded ICTShore.com with the same principle: I share what I learn so that you get value from it faster than I did.

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