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Terms of Reference [Free Template]

It must be time for a new template!

This month’s free project management template is a Terms of Reference document. This is a really versatile document. I use it mainly for two things:

  • Putting down in writing what my Steering Group are actually supposed to do to set the ‘ground rules’ for that group and their meetings. This helps them keep a focus on the job at hand, not get too much into the detail and helps them and others take the project seriously.
  • To define what a particular workstream on a project is supposed to do. This is helpful when there’s a technical stream of work being led by someone, and then other strands being picked up by other people. It’s almost a cut-down version of the Project Initiation Document or Project Charter, as it relates to a particular set of individuals and tasks. I like it because it helps them and me see what their particular role is and the responsibilities that fall within their remit.

You could use this terms of reference (Word docx) to define almost anything: the remit of your school parent teacher association, the terms for a client project. Anything where you need to quickly summarize the high level deliverables, objectives, people, cost and time commitments without going into pages of detail that might not be relevant to them.

Terms of reference template doc on an ipad screen

What’s included in a Terms of Reference

What goes into a Terms of Reference document? I’m glad you asked.

Read on to see what I include.

General info

As with so many project documents, start with some general stuff. Put in the project’s name, title or ID code. Add today’s date. Put the version number so the versioning is clear.

That’s your meta data done. While we’re doing those kind of updates, be sure to also add the project name and the document file name into the footer. You can also add the version number there too if it makes sense to do so (and if the version number isn’t already in the file name).

I use the ‘Insert field’ option in Word to enter the file name, but if it comes out looking too long or weird I’ll abbreviate it to a name we’ll all understand.

Project introduction

Start the ToR document for your project with some brief introductory text about what the project is all about.

Summarize what this Terms of Reference covers. This is likely to be either the remit of a single group i.e. your Steering Group or a workstream of work. Explain what this involves. For example:

This workstream covers the technical elements of the xxx project including software and hardware elements, technical design and testing.

Note down any principles that this Terms of Reference will operate within e.g. the Steering Group will work according to the principles of PRINCE2.

Objectives and deliverables

State the objectives and deliverables of this particular workstream, project, group etc. Here are some sample project objectives that you can adapt for your ToR.

  • Ensure that all deliverables are completed on time, within cost and to quality
  • Ensure the work is adequately resourced against the overall project/resource plan
  • Assess risks and ensure appropriate mitigating actions are in place
  • Resolve all high level project issues, escalating for resolution to relevant management teams as appropriate
  • Raise and analyze changes impacting the project including major milestones, scope of deliverables, costs and benefits
  • Ensure compliance to corporate policies and protocols impacting the project
  • Manage project dependencies
  • Take responsibility for local project communications
  • Make/input to critical Implementation go/no go decisions
  • Formulate  plans for the workstream including deliverables, development, testing,  implementation, and communications.

You can see how the work is described to make it clear what the outcomes are expected to be, and we spell it out in really obvious terms. You’ll also have some specific deliverable information in there too, relating to the outputs that the project team are creating.

Sounds like a lot to spell out? Yes. But successful project managers make sure that the team understands exactly what is expected of them and this is one way to achieve that.

Key resources/roles and responsibilities

List the key names and what they are responsible for. This is easy to do in table format.

If you use a roles and responsibilities template, you can reference that one instead, to save you duplicating effort and writing it all out twice.

In this section, I would also add some information about how often the team is expected to meet. For example:

Meetings of the team will take place monthly or less frequently as required. Deputies will only be allowed by agreement of the Chair. The standing agenda will include:

  1. Review of project progress, milestones, risks and issues
  2. Deliverables for approval or decisions to be made
  3. Spotlight on special items for discussion or escalation
  4. AOB

Workstream Organization Structure

The next section in your terms of reference should be an org chart. This helps people understand how this workstream/team/group etc fits into the overall project (or company). It makes it clear how their actions feed into the bigger picture.

Approach

Add a paragraph or some bullets that explain the approach that is going to be followed for this. This is an explanation of how you are going to achieve the deliverables above.

Milestones

You don’t need to provide a complete project schedule, but it is helpful to include a table with the major milestones or a visual high-level project timeline. List out the milestones and the dates they are expected to be completed.

No one is going to use this list as their main project plan, but it exists in the document as part of the expectation setting. It’s a discussion point for your agreement of the ToR, and the team’s opportunity to commit to realistic dates before you put too much effort into building a proper schedule.

terms of reference template on ipad

Budget

If this work or group has a specific ring-fenced budget, then mention it so they know what they have to work with.

Include a statement like:

The indicative budget for this workstream/group is xxx. This covers xxx. The budget assumptions are included in the PID and the full figures are detailed in the project business case.

Other notes

Finally, add in anything else. Create new headings that are relevant to this particular project, or the ways of working that are appropriate for your organization.

Keep the document as short as possible, but if you do need to add additional information for the team’s benefit, then do so. For example, Use this space to record any other information for your project closure, such as supplier contact information for ongoing contracts or the location of project’s archived files.

How to get the template

Enter your email address below to get the Terms of Reference template. You will get an email with the special link to access to my free Resource Library with all of my templates, checklists, and guides.

There you will able to download the Terms of Reference template. It’s a Microsoft Word document, and as always you’ll have to edit it to take out my notes and put in your text (and don’t forget to update the headers and footers too).

I don’t mind you using my free project management templates for your work purposes but please don’t sell them!

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