What Is a Statement of Work (SOW) Contract?

November 27, 2023 • Business • 9 minutes

Ever stumbled upon the term “statement of work” or “SOW” and wondered what it’s all about? Well, you’re in the right place! SOWs are crucially important in project management, outlining everything from project scope to payment terms.

In this article, we’ll dig into the details of what SOW contracts are, what types they come in, and how they’re used in a variety of real-world scenarios. Let’s dive in!

What is an SOW contract?

A statement of work (SOW) contract is a formal document that defines the scope, objectives, and deliverables for a particular project. In the context of project management, an SOW serves as a comprehensive guide that complements other documents like the project charter. It outlines the contractual obligations within the project and sets the stage for a successful outcome.

What is the purpose of an SOW?

The purpose of an SOW is to define project requirements, specify the project scope, establish the period of performance, define payment terms, and list any special requirements. Let’s take a look at each of these five purposes in greater detail.

  1. Outline project requirements: The SOW specifies what needs to be done for the project to be considered complete.
  2. Specify the project scope: The SOW outlines the boundaries of the project, detailing what is included and what is not.
  3. Establish period of performance: The SOW sets the timeline for when the project should start and end.
  4. Define payment terms: The SOW outlines how and when payments will be made.
  5. List any special requirements: Any unique needs or constraints are also included in the SOW.

In essence, an SOW contract serves as a roadmap for project management and contract negotiation, ensuring everyone is on the same page.

What are the elements of an SOW?

An SOW typically includes the following elements:

  • Work breakdown structure (WBS)
  • Project requirements
  • Payment terms
  • Period of performance
  • Terms and conditions

Now let’s take a detailed look at each of these components of an SOW.

Work breakdown structure (WBS)

The WBS forms the core of your SOW. It’s a hierarchical decomposition of the total scope of work, breaking it down into manageable chunks. This helps in assigning responsibilities, resource allocation, and tracking project progress.

Why it’s important:

  • Provides a clear roadmap for the project
  • Facilitates better planning and management
  • Helps in identifying potential risks early on

Project requirements

This section outlines the functional and technical needs that the project aims to fulfill. It’s where you specify what the project must achieve to be considered successful.

Why it’s important:

  • Sets clear expectations for all parties involved
  • Serves as a basis for measuring project success
  • Helps in avoiding scope creep

Payment terms

Here, you’ll outline how payments will be made. This could be upon the completion of certain milestones, upfront, or after the project is completed. It’s crucial to be explicit about how and when payments will be made to avoid any future disputes.

Why it’s important:

  • Ensures financial transparency
  • Helps in budget planning
  • Minimizes the risk of financial disputes

Period of performance

This section specifies the project’s start and end dates. It may also include any milestones or phases that the project will go through.

Why it’s important:

  • Helps in resource planning
  • Sets expectations for project duration
  • Provides a timeline for performance evaluation

Terms and conditions

This is the legal core of the SOW. It often includes contract clauses on confidentiality, compliance with laws and regulations, and dispute resolution procedures. It may also include any warranties or guarantees, as well as termination conditions.

Why it’s important:

  • Provides a legal framework for the project
  • Protects the interests of all parties involved
  • Sets the groundwork for resolving any potential issues

By understanding and carefully crafting each of these elements, you’ll create an SOW that keeps everyone on the same page, reducing the likelihood of misunderstandings and helping your project run more smoothly.

What are the types of SOWs?

SOWs come in three general types, each of which can influence your approach to completing a project. Let’s take a look at each of the three types in greater detail.

Performance-based SOWs

Performance-based SOWs are all about the end game — the desired outcome or deliverable. Instead of dictating how the work should be done, these SOWs focus on what the final product should be. This allows for greater flexibility and innovation, as contractors or project teams can use their expertise to determine the best way to achieve the specified outcome.


  • Encourage creative problem-solving
  • Allow for flexibility in approach
  • Often lead to more efficient solutions


  • May require more oversight to ensure objectives are met
  • Could lead to unexpected methods or costs if not carefully managed

Design-based SOWs

Design-based SOWs are the opposite of performance-based SOWs in that they are highly prescriptive. They specify not only what the end result should be but also how to achieve it – sometimes including detailed steps, methodologies, and materials to be used. These are common in projects where a specific process is crucial, or where regulatory compliance is a factor.


  • Clear guidelines and expectations
  • Easier to estimate costs and timelines
  • Reduced risk of non-compliance or errors


  • Limited flexibility for problem-solving
  • Can be more time-consuming due to detailed requirements
  • May stifle innovative approaches

Hybrid SOWs

As their name suggests, hybrid SOWs combine elements of both performance-based and design-based SOWs. These are useful for complex projects that require flexibility in some areas but strict guidelines in others. For example, a hybrid SOW might specify the materials to be used in a construction project (design-based) but allow the contractor to decide the best construction methods (performance-based).


  • Offer a balanced approach
  • Allow for flexibility where needed
  • Can incorporate strict guidelines for crucial elements


  • May require more complex contract management
  • Potential for conflicts between performance and design elements
  • Could be challenging to draft and negotiate

Each type has its own set of advantages and disadvantages, so choose wisely based on your project’s specific needs and constraints.

Practical examples of using SOWs

SOWs are frequently used in a wide variety of different industries and organizations. Here’s a list of examples:

  • Construction: In construction projects, SOWs define everything from building materials and labor requirements to construction timelines and safety protocols.
  • IT projects: For software development or IT infrastructure projects, an SOW might outline the coding languages, frameworks, testing procedures, and milestones.
  • Consultancy services: In consultancy, an SOW could specify the scope of advice, the consultancy period, and deliverables like reports or strategies.
  • Healthcare: In healthcare projects, an SOW could outline the scope of a research study, the methodologies to be used, and the expected outcomes.
  • Marketing and advertising: For marketing campaigns, an SOW might detail the types of marketing activities, the platforms to be used, and key performance indicators (KPIs).
  • Manufacturing: In manufacturing, an SOW could specify the materials to be used, quality control measures, and production timelines.
  • Education: For educational programs or curriculum development, an SOW might outline the learning objectives, materials needed, and assessment methods.
  • Event planning: In the event planning industry, an SOW could detail the venue, logistics, entertainment, and other elements that will be part of the event.
  • Retail: For retail projects, an SOW might specify the scope of a seasonal rollout, including merchandising plans, inventory levels, and promotional activities.
  • Legal services: In the legal field, an SOW could outline the scope of legal services to be provided, including research, representation, and any court filings.
  • Non-profit organizations: For community or international development projects, an SOW might detail the objectives, community involvement, and metrics for success.
  • Aerospace and defense: In these highly specialized fields, an SOW could outline the technical specifications, compliance requirements, and testing protocols for a project.
  • Energy sector: For energy projects, an SOW might specify the type of energy to be produced, the production methods, and environmental safeguards.

Across all these industries and sectors, SOWs provide versatility in defining the scope and requirements of a wide array of projects.

What’s the difference between a SOW and a master service agreement (MSA)?

A master service agreement (MSA) is a contract that outlines the general terms and conditions for multiple transactions or projects. An SOW, on the other hand, is often a part of the MSA, focusing on the specifics of one particular transaction. While the MSA sets the overall relationship terms, the SOW dives into the specifications for the current project.

How to write an SOW

Creating a statement of work might seem like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. Here’s a step-by-step guide that’ll help you craft an effective SOW.

  1. Start with a statement of work template. Many online resources offer SOW templates that can serve as useful starting points. These templates often include placeholders for each key element of an SOW.
  2. Include the scope of work. Clearly outline what the project will and will not include. Be as specific as possible, as ambiguity in contracts can lead to misunderstandings later on.
  3. Define project requirements. List the technical and functional requirements that the project must meet – for example, quality standards, contract compliance requirements, and performance metrics.
  4. Specify the work breakdown structure (WBS). Include a detailed WBS that breaks down the project into smaller, manageable tasks or phases.
  5. Clearly define payment terms. Be explicit about how and when payments will be made. This could be milestone-based, upon completion, or even an upfront payment.
  6. Describe any special requirements. If the project has any unique needs, constraints, or risks, include them in this section.
  7. Include the period of performance. Specify the start and end dates for the project, as well as any important milestones or phases.
  8. Add terms and conditions. Include any legal clauses, such as confidentiality, compliance, and dispute resolution procedures.
  9. Review and revise. Before finalizing, review the SOW carefully. Make any necessary revisions and ensure that it aligns with any other existing contracts or agreements.

By following these steps, you’ll be well on your way to crafting an SOW that’s both comprehensive and effective, setting the stage for a successful project.

And there you have it! Whether you’re a project manager, a contractor, or a consultant, knowing how to craft and interpret an SOW can make your life a whole lot easier. So, the next time you’re about to kick off a project, make sure you’ve got your SOW worded correctly.

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