PM-Foundations – Creating an Effective Statement of Work (SOW)

Having spent many years on both sides of the table (client and consultant), I have a pretty balanced perspective of what makes partnerships work well. Most importantly I have seen my share of success and challenges as a result of bad client – vendor relationships. These bad relationships are often the source of less optimal project outcomes, or at a minimum the reason the team had to “win ugly”.

I have a firm belief that the quality of the partnership, and the resulting project outcomes, start right up-front when the agreement between the client and vendor is created. The goal of this agreement is to define the products / services the vendor will provide that will satisfy the client’s needs, and how the vendor will be fairly compensated for the products / services delivered. Problems with the agreement can result in a client not getting what they need, or a vendor not getting fairly compensated for what they delivered. Here are a couple scenarios that help illustrate this point:

Scenario 1: The Unhappy Client

The client sends out a Request for Proposal (RFP) to create a new web site. The client has definite ideas in mind in terms of what the new web site needs to look like and do to drive the desired benefits to the organization. The vendor expresses that this project should be pretty straightforward and they provide the lowest time and cost estimates. They are awarded the engagement largely based upon these estimates. As the project progresses, the vendor expresses that there are more requirements / complexities associated with the solution than originally defined in the SOW. Many change orders ensue and the project slips. Finally, the project is completed, but the client had to forgo certain desired features, paid more than planned, and went “live” with the solution much after the original management commitments. This is not a happy client.

Scenario 2: The Damaged Vendor

The vendor provides a proposal to develop a collaboration portal for their client. The client says that they really want to do business with the vendor, but they do not have funding for the amount proposed. The client convinces the vendor that they can “cut some corners” in a couple areas to meet the desired cost of the engagement. As work progresses, client stakeholders keep pushing for doing things “the right way”, and in the spirit of maintaining a positive relationship the vendor performs much of the work originally proposed. The project is delivered successfully, but not without much pain and additional effort on the part of the vendor.

The processes utilized to create and approve the Statement of Work (SOW) can help both parties establish a strong partnership and achieve positive project outcomes. My insights on this topic are not all about introducing overhead and bureaucracy to crank out an “iron clad” contract, but rather how the client and vendor can work collaboratively to create an agreement that sets up both parties for success (the overused term for this is creating “win-win” situation).

6 Tips on Creating an Effective SOW

1. Understanding of the Problem – In my opinion the most important element of creating a strong agreement is ensuring that the problem to be solved is well understood by all parties involved. Adequate effort must be invested in the client describing the problem, the vendor performing discovery to understand the problem and associated requirements, and the vendor describing their approach to solve the problem. Many of my experiences with bad client – vendor relationships can be traced back to when this process was not completed well. I believe that vendors can consistently separate themselves from the competition by taking the extra steps required to understand the client problem, and effectively articulate their proposed approach to solve the problem.

2. Creating an Acceptable Delivery Approach – The processes and tools the vendor will use to deliver the solution must be compatible with client processes and tools (e.g. SDLC, project management tool). In addition, the approach must be one that the vendor is comfortable using to successfully deliver the solution. If there are specific processes or tools that are critical to compliance with client methodologies, they should be understood and specified in the SOW.

3. Establishing Realistic Estimates & Targets – Both parties must be comfortable with the effort and timelines defined in the SOW. Agreeing to estimates or dates that are not reasonable or achievable will lead to problems in the project delivery process. One of my favorite statements is “the work is what it is, and just saying it will be so does not make it so”. If there are specific concerns about the estimates or timelines, it is much easier to discuss and resolve the issues before the work has started, rather than after a significant problem is encountered during the project delivery process.

4. Defining Roles & Responsibilities – Many agreements fall short in the area of defining roles and responsibilities. Vendors do a decent job of describing the resources that they will require to deliver the solution, but they do not spend as much energy on describing client resource requirements. I think it is most effective to describe the client roles and responsibilities in the context of a RACI Chart, and highlight deliverables that the client is responsible for or is making significant contributions to. In addition, it is important to highlight specific resources or skill sets that will be required to complete key deliverables.

5. Minimizing Assumptions – Assumptions are often overused in an agreement to try to protect a party against negative situations. My experience is that these assumptions are forgotten the moment the SOW is signed, and they can become a source of contention during the project delivery process. The classic “CYA” assumption found in many SOWs is “the vendor will have timely access to client resources to define requirements and approve deliverables.” First of all this statement is not actionable, and secondly it is not helpful to successful project delivery. If there are areas of concern, work together to address the issues in an actionable manner either within the definition scope of the engagement or the project delivery approach.

6. Accounting for Progressive Elaboration – Almost all agreements involve “unknowns”. The SOW must accommodate how the unknown will be turned into a known, as well as how project plans will be adjusted throughout the project delivery process. The most common way (but not necessarily the best way) that agreements account for unknowns is through the description of the change order process. A change order process is required when an unknown is not described in the SOW, and requires additional work when it is discovered in the project delivery process. However, many unknowns are associated with clarifications required (vs. change) during the project delivery process and these situations are best accommodated by reflecting iterations in the delivery approach to confirm and adjust plans accordingly.


About Steve Hart
Practice Manager responsible for project leadership & delivery services for the Cardinal Solutions Group in the RTP area. I am a PMP with 25 years of project management and technical leadership roles, have developed an extensive practical knowledge that spans a wide variety of industries, and project delivery approaches. As a practicing PMP, I am a member of the North Carolina PMI chapter. I am an avid sports fan, particularly the Miami RedHawks, Cleveland Indians, Cleveland Browns, and most recently the NC State Wolfpack.

One Response to PM-Foundations – Creating an Effective Statement of Work (SOW)

  1. Pingback: PM-Foundations – Creating an Effective Statement of Work (SOW)

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