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What are work packages in project management?

The complex world of project management has many components, and one of the smallest and most meticulous is known as a work package. Understanding how to create and use work packages in your planning process will enable you to maintain a firm grasp on all the moving parts of your project and keep team members up to date with your expectations. In this article, we’ll unpack what work packages are, why your projects can benefit from using them and how to draw up your own.

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What is a work package and what does it include?

At its core, a work package is a planning tool that focuses on a single element within a larger project. This element can comprise one task or a set of related tasks or actions. The work package is the smallest part of a work breakdown structure, often abbreviated as WBS. WBS is a popular project-management method that tackles large-scale projects by breaking them down into smaller components. This makes projects more manageable and less overwhelming.

An example of a work package could be a popular restaurant redoing their entire menu. Deliverables of the project include developing new recipes, testing recipes with employees, stakeholders and experts, determining food costs and setting prices, designing the look of the menu, printing physical menus and updating the restaurant’s website.

A work package for the design deliverable could then include these actions: collating design inspiration and creating a mood board, researching and commissioning a talented graphic designer and meeting with the graphic designer to discuss your vision and requirements.

There are four elements of the overall project that must be considered when defining the tasks within a work package.

1. Budget

Not all work packages will contain actions that cost money, but many will. In the example we gave, the action of commissioning a graphic designer will require knowledge of the overall budget and the portion that’s been set aside for the design deliverable. If your preferred designer charges more than the budget for the deliverable allows, you’ll either need to try negotiating the price, consider increasing the project’s budget or work with team members handling other deliverables to see where savings or cuts could be made.

2. Deadlines

Projects generally have an overall deadline as well as earlier deadlines for various deliverables. Actions within the work package should have the same deadline as the deliverable the package sits under. Having these sub-deadlines helps managers measure the project’s progress and keep track of performance and productivity.

Related: How to measure productivity in employees

3. Risks

Identifying risks and creating mitigation plans is an essential part of project management. This process should include every work package in your WBS. Risk mitigation requires close monitoring of your progress so that any issues can be swiftly addressed.

4. Task priority

You’ll need to know how high up or low down your work package is within the project structure. This way, if employees working on other deliverables run into any problems, you’ll know whether it’s possible to put a work package on hold and redirect staffing resources towards the problem areas.

What are the advantages of using this management tool?

Using work packages to break down your deliverables offers numerous benefits. Let’s look at a few.

  • Concurrent work increases efficiency: Work packages allow various team members to work on different tasks at the same time, which can speed up completion of your deliverables.
  • Easier to sequence tasks and actions: Because the use of work packages makes it easy to see at a glance all the tiny steps a project includes, employees can easily determine the sequence in which tasks must be completed. This can be especially useful if any tasks depend on external circumstances, e.g. the time of year, weather, availability of specific persons etc.
  • Helps manage budget and costs: When used correctly, work packages give team members the ability to see even the smallest tasks required for a deliverable. This reduces the likelihood that any costs could be overlooked when drafting a budget and makes it easy to determine what portion of the budget to allocate to each deliverable.
  • Helps with setting deadlines: The smaller and simpler a task is, the easier it is for team members to determine how long it will take to complete. By using work packages to break deliverables down into their smallest components, project managers can get a more accurate idea of schedules and deadlines.
  • Easier to measure progress: Seeing all the smaller tasks the project comprises makes it easier to track progress. It also helps teams stay motivated and productive by providing a steady stream of accomplishments as tasks are completed. Read this article for more ideas on keeping teams motivated.
  • Responsibilities are clearly defined: Work packages allow team members to understand their roles and where their duties fit into the bigger picture. This can also increase accountability.
  • Keeps stakeholders in the loop: Using work packages makes it easier for stakeholders, clients or senior managers to track the progress of the project and communicate with teams.

Steps to creating a work package

There are five main steps that lead to drawing up the work packages within your project. Let’s break them down.

1. Identify the project’s objectives

Before you can create work packages, it’s vital to define the goals and scope of the project. This will provide you with direction and make it easy to structure deliverables, sub-tasks and eventually, the work packages.

2. Outline the deliverables/major tasks

Using a WBS involves working from the outside in. Once your objectives are set, the project is ready to be broken down into its major tasks, typically called deliverables in project management.

3. Define the sub-tasks of each deliverable

This is the final stage before you can draw up your work packages. Each sub-task will have its own work package created for it. Smaller projects may not require sub-tasks. In this case, you will create work packages directly for each deliverable.

4. Create the work packages for each sub-task

Now you can define the tasks and actions for your sub-tasks. Remember to keep the four components of budget, deadlines, risk and task priority in mind while you do this. You can use your own methods to draw up your packages or you can use a work package template. Once you’ve set the tasks of the work package, you can decide which team member to assign the package to.

5. Establish the different activities within the work package

Even the tasks within the work package can be comprised of smaller activities. In our restaurant menu example, let’s examine the task of researching and commissioning a graphic designer. This task could include the following activities: using a search engine and reading online reviews, finding out which designers the restaurant used in the past and how satisfactory their work was, reaching out to contacts or social media for recommendations, finding the contact details of the chosen designer and deciding what information to include when first reaching out to them.

Tips and best practices

Here are some tips to help you use work packages to your best advantage.

  • Remember to add up the time and cost estimates within all your work packages when determining your overall budget and deadlines.
  • Make sure work packages can be completed within a short time frame. This set of tasks or actions should ideally take around a week and a half. Longer than this may mean that your sub-tasks or deliverables are too broad and need to be broken down further.
  • Try not to assign more than one person to each work package. If the range of actions is so diverse that it could fall outside of this person’s remit, this could also indicate that your sub-tasks or deliverables need to be broken down further.
  • Ensure each work package has a defined outcome and achieves at least one objective.
  • When defining your WBS and work packages, don’t neglect to bring other team members on board. This makes employees feel valued and more engaged in the project and can help ensure you aren’t overlooking any critical aspects.

Using a WBS for your project planning is a great way to form a truly detailed outline of your project and stay on track. Work packages are the building blocks that make up the WBS. The ‘big picture’ of your project rests on this foundation, so having a strong understanding of work packages and how to use them will stand you in good stead and give your project the best chance of success.

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