How to Define the Scope of Work for Your Projects

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You wouldn’t agree to something without first understanding what it is, and neither will your stakeholders. Here’s everything you need to know about your scope of work and how to write one.

In the world of project management, you should leave absolutely nothing to chance.

Every promise or obligation that is made must be put in writing because no one wants to be on the receiving end of a raw deal. It doesn’t matter if you’re dealing in construction or marketing project management, it’s always best to avoid the pitfalls of "selective amnesia."

That’s why you need a scope of work proposal for detailing everything you will complete for your stakeholders.

Overview: What is a scope of work in project management?

The scope of work is a document that spells out the agreed-upon terms of work that’ll be performed as part of a project and goes in-depth as to how a project will be accomplished. A fully fleshed-out scope document will include the project milestones, deliverables, objective metrics that’ll be measured, and the parties involved in executing the project.

While the terms scope of work and statement of work (SOW) are used interchangeably quite often, they are not exactly the same thing. A statement of work is a key component for creating a project charter and is an essential component of the project planning process. It is a legally binding document and summation of the terms for which all parties will be held accountable, which the scope of work is a part of.

That’s why I’ve included all of the sections of a statement of work in this piece to give you an idea of where the scope of work fits within the entirety of the document. Consider this a partial refresher on writing a statement of work.

What to keep in mind when writing a scope of work

Your scope of work can make or break your project; it all depends on how you approach the process. These are the two major pitfalls that are destined to flunk your project if you aren’t careful when drafting up your scope of work:

1. Avoid any ambiguities

A scope of work will help you define what success looks like to your project stakeholders and eliminate any presumptions or misinterpretations, but only if you do your due diligence.

What do I mean by that? Well, one of the most common causes for project failure is miscommunication, and this extends even to your scope of work. If your scope of work is not clear, concise, detailed, and specific, then you’re leaving the door open for unmet expectations either for you or your stakeholders.

2. Get your stakeholders involved

I am a big believer in the iterative processes of the agile methodology since they create a sense of involvement between the project stakeholders and your executing team. That’s why I recommend that you make your stakeholders a part of the drafting process.

This is the best way to avoid any confusion or ambiguity that would damage your relationship with them further down the road. This doesn’t mean they ought to draft the document.

Instead, make sure you bring any uncertainties or major developments to your stakeholders for clarification. Whether their initial requests and deliverables are not as attainable as once thought or you just have a question about a particular detail, make sure you don’t keep these concerns to yourself.

Where your scope of work fits in the statement of work

As I mentioned before, since the scope of work is just a component of the statement of work, I figured this was the perfect opportunity to run through a refresher of the entire document.

If you want to jump ahead to my scope of work example, look to section 3.

Section 1: Introduction

Your introduction is your opportunity to provide an abstract overview of the issue(s) you and your team plan to address. You’ll identify the purpose of this project and why this project is important for the stakeholders.

Save most of your minute details for the following sections. All you want to do is give some context as to why your services are necessary and a brief explanation as to why you’re suited to take on this challenge.

Tip: This section shouldn’t be any longer than three paragraphs as this is essentially only your thesis statement for the entire statement of work.

Section 2: Project goals

You’ve introduced the problem to be solved and now it’s time to give an overall explanation of what your goals are for this project. This is a short section and only requires you to answer this particular question:

What is the goal of your project?

Tip: This isn’t the place to get caught up in details, as mentioned in the last section. This is only meant for you to explain the high-minded endgame for your project.

Section 3: Project objectives and deliverables (scope of work)

Here’s where we get into the true scope of work since most of the information so far is actually part of your statement of work. It’s time to take a deep dive into the tasks and deliverables that they will produce. It’s best for you to run down your list of tasks for the project and pair them with detailed deliverable descriptions.

Not every single task will produce a specific deliverable, so if you have to bundle several tasks together, feel free to do so in order to avoid repeating yourself, like so:

  • Task 1
  • Task 2
  • Task 3
    = Deliverable (plus a detailed description)

  • Task 4
  • Task 5
  • Task 6
    = Deliverable (plus a detailed description)

While you’ll address dates in greater detail in the next section, make sure you list all of this information in the order you plan to tackle the deliverables so that you can avoid any confusion.

Include detailed explanations of how these tasks are to be completed, what they will require to complete, and how all of this will impact the outcome of the deliverables. Finish off this section with a description of how all of these deliverables will come together to complete the project.

While you don’t have to adhere exactly to this scope of work template, it’s best that you include all of this information in some form or another, whether it’s a bulleted list, a chart, or any other organizational form.

Tip: Here’s where you don’t want to skimp out on detail. You want to be as clear as possible to avoid any future conflicts borne out of ambiguity. Every task and deliverable must be specific and quantifiable.

Section 4: Project layout and timeline

When should your stakeholders expect all of this to take place? Use this section to layout your project schedule, including:

  • Kickoff
  • Task completion dates
  • Stakeholder review dates
  • Deliverable completion dates
  • Testing spans
  • Project closeout

Just like your objectives and deliverables section, you want to be specific on all of these fronts. These dates will ensure transparency and clarity, but also give you a baseline to work from in case things have to change in the future.

Tip: This goes hand-in-hand with the scope of a project since it gives further context to the work you hope to accomplish, so remember not to underestimate your due dates for your project. Any increases to your project scope can lead to runaway scope creep. Everything you do is a balance of the project management triangle of scope, time, and cost.

Section 5: Terms and conditions

This is the fun part for the performing party where you lay out your terms and conditions for completing this project. You’ll include everything that is contingent upon the delivery of the project and any additional support items you’ll require from the stakeholders, including:

  • Payment terms
  • Security clearances
  • Travel requirements
  • Testing support
  • Hardware or software systems access

Additionally, you’ll include all of the standards for accepting deliverables, what success looks like to the stakeholders, who will review and approve the status of the deliverables, and any other criteria that determine the quality of the project.

Tip: If your team is working with outside contractors to perform work on the project, make sure you clear with them how they prefer to be paid and if it is a rate the client is likely to accept.

Section 6: Completion criteria and signature area

Once the stakeholders have read through all of the project details in your statement of work, they’ll come to this final section, which includes binding language that holds you and your stakeholders accountable to all terms laid out in the document. Finally, create a space for all of the responsible parties to sign the document.

Cover all of your bases

Just as you’d never want to leave any stone unturned when preparing your scope of work proposal, the same can be said for your knowledge of project management.

That’s why we at The Ascent have put together troves of project management software reviews, how-to guides, software alternatives pieces, and beginner’s pieces to get you up to speed on everything you need to know. Be sure to brush up on some of my favorites:

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