McKinsey Quarterly publishes The path to successful new products in which the authors highlight three critical success factors: keep it focused, nurture a strong project culture, talk to the customer. In this post I focus on the first one, which is an all-time classic, probably because it is also an all-time frustration that in spite of much “keep it focused” talk, project teams so often end up losing focus at some point.

A simple but effective tool to establish the focus and create an anchor to hold onto when scope creep raises its ugly head is the TOR – Terms Of Reference. It sounds template-junkie and bureaucratic but it can be made simple and even poetic.  A guide to write TOR is Kipling’s:

I keep six honest serving-men / (They taught me all I knew); / Their names are What and Why and When / And How and Where and Who. / I send them over land and sea, / I send them east and west; / But after they have worked for me, / I give them all a rest.

The six honest serving men provide the structure of the TOR:

  • Why is the purpose of the project
  • What specifies the deliverables
  • Where maps the space defined by what’s in-scope and what’s out-of-scope (even if logically what is not in scope should be out of scope, it is usually a good idea to make both the in-scope and out-of-scope explicit)
  • Who are the people (sponsor, project lead and team, customers, stakeholders, etc.)
  • How articulates the process or methodology that will be followed, including resources ($ and other)
  • When spells out the timeline for the deliverables, the milestones, the gate reviews.

Once written, the TOR is widely communicated to stakeholders (I send them over land and sea / I send them east and west), so that the project team can refer to it and fend off scope creep (But after they have worked for me / I give them all a rest).

Sounds all very obvious, but how many times have you seen projects start with no clear scope, no specified deliverables, or even no shared purpose?

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