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Ensuring the Development of a Clearly Written SOW

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Hi Folks,

I am here to confront you all with an age-old CO problem, how to get your COR to write and submit a decent statement of work.  I have a rather large, high-visibility requirement for services.  The COR started out by submitting the previous SOW, with six-year old data.  I went through this monster of a document, plastering it with track changes and an abundance of comments. I gave the COR ample time to make corrections, but not too much time.  I scheduled the submission of the revised document via Outlook, setting it up as a meeting.  The COR initially accepted, but then asked for more time one day prior.  The night before the rescheduled meeting, he called me distressed, making it apparent that he had yet again procrastinated.  He is halfway across the country from my regular work site.  Therefore, bringing him into my office and locking the door to keep him there until we can hammer out all the changes is a non-starter. 

With the exception of PhD-holding CORs with whom I've worked on R&D contracts, nearly every experience finalizing a SOW with a program office has been lackluster.  The IT folks are smart in their own respect, but typically poor at explaining themselves on paper.  Most other CORs exhibit significant shortcomings with the written English language.  At the risk of sounding smug, I read about two books a week, typically non-fiction and pedantic novels.  My first love has always been writing.  I realize most people are not going to meet my fullest expectations.  Accordingly, I have relaxed them a whit over the years.  My director is appalled by what we have for the SOW after months of time.  I figure after one spends two days going through a program office's document, offering innumerable comments, it gets the point in which you say, I have served up my best suggestions, the ball is in their court.  I have done this dance at other agencies as well.  It seems to always play out the same.  The director bellyaches that the SOW is the COR'S responsibility.  We take it as far on down the line as we possible can before that same director relents, calling me into his/her office to request that I put it in final form.  Need I make the obvious comparison to our elected officials who grudgingly and with such pained display surrender the stake of taxpaying citizens?

So then, the old standbys are either (1) to rework the document myself, sending it to the COR for approval, at which time they will say, looks great (all the while thinking to themselves, thanks for doing my job for me, sucker) or (2) have my director call their director, which may have some effect, but does little for the quality of our working relationship.  I have never understood why the Government cannot employ professional writers to script these documents, particularly when the requirements they describe involve nine-figures of taxpayer funding.  Other than these two fallback positions, is there an emotionally intelligent way to handle this that is likely to produce the desired results?

 

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I vote for (2), though sometimes CORs and I rewrite SOWs together.  I hope it helps them, but they write this way so infrequently it's unlikely.

2 hours ago, Guardian said:

I have never understood why the Government cannot employ professional writers to script these documents, particularly when the requirements they describe involve nine-figures of taxpayer funding.

Endorsed.  Division of labor is good.

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Been there, and done that many times over. At least you have a director who is concerned with having a quality SOW/PWS. My experience has been that I appear to be the only party involved who really cares that the PWS is well written. The attitude of everyone else has usually been why sweat it, it really isn't that important, and would only become an issue if we go to court, which rarely happens so why invest the time trying to perfect the document? So I usually fix what I can, as it easier to fix it yourself than to try to explain what is wrong, and end up having to do it yourself anyway.  Of course some things you can't fix yourself, so you end up with a not so good document getting into the contract.

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Using Emotional intelligence - Understand and (if its reasonable) empathize with the COR's perspective. She isn't doing bad work to irritate you and annoy her management.  Find out why she is doing what she is doing, and how it looks from her perspective.   Often, when you know this, a mutually beneficial solution is revealed.  

In my experience, the-bad-SOW-the-COR-wont'-fix is usually due to some combination of 1) Doesn't Know, 2) Doesn't Care, 3) Doesn't Have Time.    

PS.  Don't Care is the easiest to address. Find out who does care, and include them into the  group-hug that is an acquisition IPT.  

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I also agree with General.  If bad SOWs are a wide spread problem, get your management to schedule training.   A session with lots of critiquing examples goes a long way 

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An excellent topic!! 

I wouldn't waste my time with "training." You can't "train" a semi-literate to write cogent sentences, at least not easily nor quickly. Now, if you can convince your agency to either send these folks back to University, or bring in local experts (I'm not talking about business writing people folks), then definitely go that route. On the other hand, if the option is to show some good or bad examples via Powerpoint while 85% of the attendees are checking their Facebook accounts via their phones…..I’d find a better use of my time.

It seems to me there are several issues at work here, some of which Guardian highlights above. One glaring issue I see is the federal hiring process which flattens all higher education. The number of new hires I am seeing that have attended online higher education exclusively is appalling. Couple that with the overall rejection of Arts and Humanities in higher education (a several decades old trend that was accelerated mightily after 2008’s economic meltdown), and you increasingly have a workforce that struggles with written communication.

So then.....what is the answer?

The one I give in my office is that I've written every SOW/PWS/SOO for every contract I've done. Now to be sure, I am working at a very local office supporting local customers doing commercial contracts only. I currently have 60-70 awarded contracts I am administering and then bringing on 15-20 new ones each year. Furthermore, the dollar values I am awarding are nowhere near the 9 digits mentioned above. Yet, I did just award my first 8 digit contract a month ago, and I can confidently say that the COR for that contract had a level of literacy on par with a middle-schooler. Now before all of you impugn me with being hyperbolic, know this. I spend a week of my leave in the summer grading AP (Advanced Placement) European History tests (full disclosure: prior to getting into contracting I was teaching European History as an Adjunct Instructor at a Big 10 school, therefore doing this for a week acts as my outlet for that abiding interest). For seven straight days, eight hours a day, I sit in a convention center reading essays. I’d estimate a decent grader makes it through 1400 essays for those 7 days. The first draft of that SOW was far worse than any essay I read last summer.  

 

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Specific to IT - A highly detailed and specified SOW is a red-flag, if not an anti-pattern. 

If its straight commercial software, you are buying whatever they are selling, so no need to specify everything because it doesn't matter.  

If is software development, or anything under broad definition of 'IT services,' your IT folks probably shouldn't have too many detailed requirements.  That is what the whole 'Agile' thing is about.

 

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17 hours ago, General.Zhukov said:

If its straight commercial software, you are buying whatever they are selling, so no need to specify everything because it doesn't matter.  

Amen!

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Picking up on the training theme, the more complex acquisitions generally have experienced and knowledgeable PM/CORs.  If they aren’t doing SOWs correctly, it’s usually because they haven’t been shown how to do it properly.  That’s where examples and personal assistance goes a long way.  As I mentioned earlier, agency wide training is good where you get into details of critiquing and showing by example what’s good and what isn’t.  

Now if you have CORs that can’t catch on and choose to write documents yourself, that works as long as you have the time and energy.

Ive found if a widespread problem like this exist, it’s important to let senior management know.  Propose fixes as part of the job.  Several agencies resorted to centralizing SOW writing type functions where experts do it for a program or larger function.  Brining incontractors as SMEs is also another option.  But if these contracts are important to the agency, they need proper attention and resources.  Having a CS or CO do it doesn’t solve the larger problem.

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