Write a Consulting Statement of Work that Stops Problems before They Start

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Consultant posting sticky notes as input to a Statement of Work.

One of the first and most important things you should do with a new client is to create a clear Statement of Work (SOW) that stakeholders and you agree on.

A clear, well-defined Statement of Work sets expectations so there are no misunderstandings, reduces scope creep, and builds trust and authority that position you for more client work in the future.

Here are some tips on getting everyone’s buy-in and writing a Statement of Work.

Define a Clear Objective

Everyone needs a vision of the same result. Before calling any large stakeholder meetings you need to interview the key stakeholder, manager, or executive and get a clear definition of the objectives with mission-critical checkpoints, metrics, and end date.

I usually try to get a consensus on a definition that is one to three sentences, a few key metrics that measure key results, and an end date.

That concise definition of the objective will be very useful when you bring together a room full of stakeholders and functional leaders.

When you lead an SOW meeting, post the objective in large print at the front of the room. And then read it aloud at the beginning. This helps align everyone to the same end.

Use the Interviews and Findings from Your Discovery Session

If you used Discovery Session interviews with the hiring manager and a few key stakeholders, you should have enough information to give them a summary briefing on your findings and observations. By building greater trust in your work and demonstrating your authority you are in a good position to describe the outlines for a Statement of Work. It’s at that point your client may ask you to lead a meeting to build the project’s SOW. And that means you have a new client.

Get All Stakeholders Involved

Somewhere back in my military education on strategy, I remember research showing that the best results were strategies created by solitary geniuses. The problem is that they also generated the greatest disasters.

By far a better method is to include representatives from all involved areas. Get as much input as possible, then narrow it to the best solutions.

Another problem with authoritarian organizations is that great ideas and solutions may exist, but you won’t hear them.

In one meeting with a US state government agency, we had about ten people around a large conference table. The meeting was like a Saturday Night Live skit.

Normally I like to get a lot of discussion going with everyone participating. However, no one would talk until the “big man” at the head of the table gave his opinion. Everyone stayed silent until he spoke. Then all heads turned to him. He held forth and only then would others add their agreement.

We didn’t work for that client. And that agency never completed its project.

The best project plans and SOWs seem to come when you can bring together key stakeholders and contributors from multiple levels and all contributing departments.

With all stakeholders involved critical obstacles and constraints are more likely to come to light.

In one major project, I facilitated a cross-functional group of more than twenty people, from executives to representative managers and line team leaders. When finished, the task timeline covered a whiteboard with tens of Post It™ notes showing key tasks, roles and responsibilities, critical decision points, and timelines.

With key players in one room at the same time, a few hours of hard work and listening saved months of emails and small meetings.

As we neared the end, a quiet member of the legal team sitting in the back of the room said, “About one-third of the way into that timeline you are going to have to get approval from the county planning commission. That usually takes two to three weeks.”

Everyone took a deep breath, sighed with relief at the reveal, and we all said, “Thank heavens you caught that.”

Without that member of the legal team pointing out a critical factor no one else saw, the project might have had delays of months.

Define the Scope of Work

Your finished scope of work must have clearly defined roles, responsibilities, deliverables, milestones, and deadlines. Your clients’ expertise should develop all the deliverables, tasks, and milestones.

As a consultant, I recommend keeping your eyes on the roles and responsibilities. This is what can bite you with Scope Creep. If someone is not identified for a role, or there is an undefined task and responsibility, you could be asked to pick it up. And that means Scope Creep.

A clear SOW enables a team to remain focused on the task at hand and measure progress against expectations and requirements throughout the project.

Identify Risks and Problems

Your Statement of Work should involve a detailed consideration of risks and potential problems that might come up during the project. This includes financial issues, technical developments, marketing needs, resource management, and other project-specific considerations.

A method I’ve used for developing a Statement of Work (SOW) and Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is to use Post It™ notes on a whiteboard and use a guided process that involves as many stakeholders as possible.

If you modify the Post It™ note method described in the blog,  How to Do the Best Brainstorming, you can use it to gather inputs for the SOW and WBS, build out the tasks and timeline, and then add risks, roles, and responsibilities.

A great way to find risks and critical points of failure is for everyone to sit quietly and look at the finished project timeline.

Have everyone write down, without talking,

  • Where do I think things are likely to go wrong?
  • How critical is it?
  • What caused it?
  • What could prevent it?

As the consultant/facilitator, you should then poll the room. (This method of “quiet internal brainstorming, followed by group discussion, is called Brainwriting.”)

If everyone agrees on a critical failure, write it on a red Post It™ and stick it up at the appropriate spot. Assign two or three people to investigate that critical failure point.

Work Top Down, Bottom Up

Too often the executive team or a planning staff will conceive of a project that is just unworkable as defined.

This is where you need to use Top Down, Bottom Up.

Go to the people who will implement the project and get their input. Identify critical failure points, staffing problems, lack of resources, and issues the management did not foresee.

Now reverse the flow of communication. Take the implementer’s feedback back to the top level and build a workable SOW or WBS.

After Action Review or Retrospective

At every major milestone in your SOW, you should have an After Action Review (AAR) or Retrospective meeting.

Often, they don’t have to be a long, big deal, but people responsible for critical objectives must be at the meeting.

I’ve seen some of the best meetings done standing up and lasting fifteen minutes or less.

Using these meetings to identify problems or potential Scope Creep can be a client-saver. Not only can early identification and reallocation of resources help fix the problem, but you also look more professional, and it reduces the chance of you later facing Scope Creep.

Where To?

For some ideas on how to prepare for a develop your Statement of Work, take a look at these blogs,

Best Discovery Session Interview Questions with Consulting Clients

How to Do the Best Brainstorming


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