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How to write a scope of work for any project or industry

Teamwork is awesome. When passionate people put energy toward a common goal, they’re unstoppable. But without a plan, things can get very convoluted, very quickly. Enter the “scope of work” (SOW) – a document that gathers all the project details and narrows the focus, so the dreaded scope creep doesn’t derail the process

A scope of work is project management 101. You can create one for just about any project, product, or service, complete with timelines, milestones, deliverables, personal accountabilities, and chains of command. The scope of work outlines what tasks will be carried out during the project’s lifecycle, but perhaps more importantly, it provides a concise framework that doesn’t leave anything to the imagination. 

What’s a scope of work?

Let’s set the scene. You’ve got a project on the go with a bunch of talented, bright people coming together to make it happen.

But every dream team needs project managers and direction. Otherwise, out-of-scope elements — ideas, plans, or tasks that don’t contribute to a successful outcome — could derail your progress. Despite your best efforts, projects careen out of scope all too easily. Here are just a few of the ways this can happen:

  • Poor planning in the initial phases results in items added to the job after the fact
  • Clients request new features or services that weren’t initially budgeted for
  • The client is unclear about or unsure of their needs at the outset
  • Increased project deliverables
  • Not enough resources to cover the above
  • Inadequate prioritization
  • Poor communication between team members or project stakeholders 

Whether it’s a commercial landscape design, construction project, or a marketing campaign for a product launch, every detail must be ironed out, so there’s no room for improvisation.

A scope of work helps you avoid ambiguity, keeps everyone on track, and ensures everyone is focused on the right things. A scope of work is a living document, a shared repository of information, documents, and data that carries through from day one through project completion and beyond. Once the project is wrapped, the SOW continues to add value by helping you measure success. 

Why you need a scope of work

If you’ve never used a scope of work before, you might not think you need one. But even small businesses and freelancers can find value in it. 

An SOW works for event planners, contractors, marketing agencies, design agencies, software developers, freelancers, and even commissioned artists. When the service provider and the project stakeholders know what’s expected, it’s easier to deliver. 

Here are some of the main benefits a scope of work provides: 

  • Outlines client expectations, makes sure everyone is on the same page, and gives you something to measure success
  • Legal protection in case of a dispute between parties involved
  • Keeps your stakeholders focused on the right things
  • Helps to maintain team alignment even when working remotely
  • Breaks down the project cost so your team stays on budget
  • Helps you maintain timelines
  • Enables measurement of success

Now that you’re sold on the power of the scope of work document, let’s talk about how to create one. 

Nine essential steps to help you create a scope of work

Here are nine simple steps to start building out a scope of work and ensuring a successful project. These steps can be applied to any project in any industry. Note that your scope of work doesn’t have to be a novel – it’s more important to keep it concise. 

Time to put on your project manager hat and get started. 

1. The summary: your project at-a-glance

The first section of your SOW needs to summarize key points of the project; in short, this is what’s being done, who’s doing it, and the time involved. It can also become a legally binding agreement wherein the client agrees to purchase your services for a set period of time or based on specific details or deliverables. 

2. Overview and project objectives

Section two is the “why” of your project, or your North Star. Here’s where you’ll explain the project and provide some context, such as defining the problems you are trying to solve. 

This section must be straightforward enough for a layperson to understand. Keep working on this section until you achieve this level of simplicity. 

The reason why many projects fail is often due to a lack of clarity around the business objectives. They need to be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound – this is called the SMART methodology of goal setting:

  • Be specific about what needs to be accomplished, who’s responsible for it, and what needs to happen to achieve it.
  • Measurability is how you gauge your success. Milestones help you track progress and know when you’ve reached the finish line.
  • Achievability is critical. If you can’t accomplish what you’ve set out to do, you’ll be spinning your wheels. For example, taking on more than you or your project team can realistically handle is unachievable. If you foresee any barriers to completion, you can outline that and the steps you’ll take to get things back on track. 
  • Set project goals that are relevant to the project as a whole. All goals should tie back to the project objectives with that in mind.
  • Timelines are another way we measure success or gauge progress toward a goal. When will you start the project? When will it be done? How long will it take? 

3. Scope of work to be done

The third section of your SOW is a high-level outline of what needs to happen to complete the project. It can be a simple paragraph explaining the process, bullet points, or numbered steps. Whatever gets the point across clearly in a broad sense. In the next section, you’ll break down what’s involved in these steps, so there’s no need to get too deep in the weeds.

If special equipment, project management software, or hardware are required to complete the steps, you can also include that here if it applies.

4. Tasks

Big projects often involve bringing in outside teams, freelancers, or specialized expertise. You’ll need to break the project down into individual tasks, so all stakeholders know what needs to get done. At this point, it’s easier to assign or take ownership of tasks.

Considering that one broad item might have many smaller items within it, these smaller items could be different enough to require specific expertise. You’ll need to be as explicit as possible about what needs to happen so you can assign those actions to the right people. Note that listing tasks is not about the deliverables, but they should detail the workflows and tools required.

You might also want to separate and group tasks into phases. For example, a construction project typically requires a planning phase, a design phase, pre-construction, materials procurement, construction, and post-construction phases with several tasks under each heading. 

5. Scheduling

Your project schedule will detail much more than just the project’s start and finish — although that’s part of it. Scheduling within the SOW will also outline when the work takes place, where it will happen, and who will do it.

Phases and milestones are essential as they enable you to measure success along the way as you move forward.

To determine how long each phase will take, consider the tasks within each phase and any dependencies. For instance, your pre-construction phase might take three months if all goes perfectly, but it all depends on how long it takes to get your permits and zoning.

Build contingencies into your planning. Be realistic, since overreaching on the scheduling aspect of the SOW could impact your future solvency. For example, if you quote six months to complete a phase and it ends up taking eight, you’re setting the project back by two months and may lack the resources to finish.

You might also have pre-determined dates, such as a hard out that’s set by the client or based on a legal mandate (if you need to, say, retrofit a building to get it up to code by a specific date).

Apply an agile methodology and set aside time after your project team reaches a phase or milestone to review. This approach is commonly applied in software development, allowing you to go back and fix problems or reiterate before moving on to the next step.

Additional things to think about are where the work will take place. Expectations must be crystal clear around this. What can be done remotely? Where will it be done? Are you outsourcing any jobs, and does that decision present any potential for delays?

Lastly, you’ll need to think about what resources you and your people will require to accomplish your goals. Do you need a payment schedule? Are there materials or equipment that require lead time? Who’s responsible for those tasks, and do they have the necessary resources to complete the job and stay on schedule?

Let’s look at ordering and procurement as an example. Your contractors need those materials to move forward with their work. Think about when those items need to be ordered and when they’ll arrive, since that’ll inform scheduling for subsequent phases. 

6. Project deliverables

In the scope of work, your deliverables are where you’ll detail the project results; in other words, what the client gets in the end. 

Since we’ve been talking about construction, let’s say that the deliverables are a move-in-ready building, retrofitted and up to code, with renewable energy sources, smart building technology, and beautifully landscaped exteriors.

Most building projects are completed in stages, so it’s good to put the deliverables on a timeline. That way, all project stakeholders involved understand how the overall timeline fits together. Some tasks are dependent on others being done before they can proceed. When everything is laid out like this, it’ll give you an idea of the required flow, and you’ll be able to identify potential issues before they become problematic. 

7. Adoption

Adoption plans might not apply to your project. But even if you don’t think they’re relevant, it’s a good idea to include them. Essentially, the adoption section details how your deliverables will be implemented. At this point, it’s all about customer success.

In the case of a new building, adoption would be occupancy. Or, if it’s a new website, the relaunch would need to be accomplished with as little downtime as possible. 

Bottom line, you must ensure your end client has all the tools and support they need to succeed. That means using all the resources and expertise at your disposal to guide the process.

If you golf, you know the follow-through tells you crucial information about what happened before that point. In terms of the SOW, the adoption phase follows the same principle. 

8. Project management

You’re getting close to the scope of work finish line! All that’s left is to draw up a project management plan. This section will first detail the payment schedule—when, how, how much, and based on what. 

  • Will you be paid monthly? Based on milestones? Project deliverables?
  • How will the client pay, and who is responsible for payments?
  • What are the terms?
  • Who needs to sign off on the deliverables?
  • Do you require a security deposit or surety?
  • What’s not included in the project’s scope?
  • Do you retain ownership in any of the design or intellectual property aspects of the project (applicable to some software or design projects)

Outline what happens if you miss a deadline or if the client changes the scope along the way. Who approves changes in the project scope? What implications does this have for the rest of the project?

9. Measuring success and the sign-off

How do you know whether a project’s finished? This final section will detail how your deliverables are delivered, accepted, and signed off on, who signs off on them, and what constitutes good work. It’s a good idea to think about this because one person’s idea of “acceptable” is often quite different from another’s: the more detail and clarity you can include here, the more predictable the result.

Bonus tips for writing your scope of work

Wrapping up, here are a few tips to guide your scope of work creation:

  • Include everything. No matter how small the task, it needs to be included.
  • Keep it short and sweet. Use bullet points vs. long, wordy explanations.
  • Use visuals if it makes sense to do so.
  • Avoid jargon. If you must use industry terminology or acronyms, don’t assume all readers know what they mean. Write for the layperson.
  • Add extra time to each phase to allow for the unexpected.
  • Be sure all parties involved have a common consensus of what the finished product looks and feels like and what constitutes success in the scope of the project.

Need help planning an upcoming project? Invoice2go has project management software that can help you define your scope of work and stay organized from start to finish.


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