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Workstream or Work Package: Which is right for you?

Paul Naybour Paul Naybour

Published: 30th September 2023

On the radio the other day, I heard a senior civil servant discussing the workstreams in a project, which led me to ponder: why use the term workstream instead of work package? Are they merely two different terminologies for dividing a project, or does the language bear significance? The more I thought about this, the more I realised that these terms might reflect underlying different philosophies in project management. Why do I say this? Exploring these terms reveals a deeper understanding of project structuring, crucial for effective management and successful outcomes.

The APM defines a work package as “a discrete element of project scope at the lowest level of each branch of the work breakdown structure. Collectively, the work packages specify all the work and products included in the project.” This definition underlines the idea of a work package being a tightly defined portion of the project, much like a box where specific tasks are placed. The boundaries are clear and well-defined, leaving little room for deviation from the specified scope. This ‘boxed in’ nature ensures that tasks remain within their stipulated boundaries, mitigating the risk of scope creep.

Conversely, a workstream is described as “a series of related activities or tasks within a project that focuses on a specific area or objective.” The imagery of a stream finding its way down a mountain embodies this notion aptly. Unlike a work package, a workstream is about directional flow towards a goal rather than a rigid enclosure. While the general trajectory is defined, the detailed pathway to the objective remains flexible. As a stream navigates towards the sea, it may merge with other streams, forming a river, all converging towards a shared objective. This fluidity allows for adaptability and a more holistic approach towards achieving project goals.

The choice between adopting the concept of work packages or workstreams greatly depends on the organisational culture and the nature of the project. Projects that demand a high degree of control, precision, and strict adherence to scope would benefit from the discipline of work packages. On the other hand, projects that thrive on flexibility, adaptability, and cross-functional collaboration may find the workstream approach more fitting.

In conclusion, the distinction between a workstream and a work package is not just a play on words but reflects deeper philosophies in project management. By understanding these differences and selecting the appropriate framework, project managers can tailor their approach to align with the unique demands and cultural nuances of their projects. This alignment not only promotes a better understanding amongst project teams but also sets a clear pathway towards achieving project success.

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