If you’re a person who manages projects, do yourself a favor. Learn to lead powerful kickoff meetings. Learn to take control of a project, to seek input, and to place everyone on the same page. Step to the front of each project with purpose, set the tone, and deliver a solid kickoff.
Don’t “Hold” a Kickoff Meeting, Lead It
Some people define a project kickoff meeting as the first meeting with the client and the project team. In their minds, as soon as the project is initiated, a project kickoff meeting should be held. They believe its primary value is to introduce everyone and announce the start of the project.
Viewing a kickoff meeting from this limited perspective; however, means it becomes scheduled prematurely. When it’s scheduled too soon, the project manager lacks the necessary information to actually lead the meeting. Instead, he or she is relegated to “holding” the kickoff meeting.
You can be certain there’s a difference.
“Holding” a Kickoff Meeting Can Hurt Your Project
When the kickoff meeting is merely held, it’s usually riddled with unanswered questions. It fails to include necessary stakeholders and it often starts late, ends late or both. Typically, it creates an appearance of disorganization. It places the project manager in a poor light and wastes the time of several people.
“Leading” a Kickoff Meeting Is Your Path to Success
Although the kickoff meeting is used to announce the start of a project, it has far greater value.
The importance of the kickoff meeting is to set the tone of the entire project and to inspire the project team. By its very nature, the kickoff meeting foreshadows how the project will be managed.
During the kickoff meeting, attendees form important first impressions regarding the project. They assign value to it and they predict its ability to succeed. Whether we recognize it or not, these first impressions either foster project success or expose the project to risk. For these reasons, the kickoff meeting is perhaps the most important of all project meetings.
Timing and Planning Matter
Strong kickoff meetings don’t just happen. They are timed and they are planned.
Timing is important because the meeting shouldn’t be held until key information is gathered. The kickoff meeting also shouldn’t occur until preliminary project planning is complete.
By following the checklists below, you’ll be well on your way to leading a powerful kickoff meeting that is well planned and perfectly timed. You’ll provide the meeting with every opportunity to signal project success.
Three Lists for Leading
The charter or contract will be your first source of information regarding each of the following project management areas: scope, schedule, cost, quality, human resources, communications, risk, procurements, and stakeholders.
Use the information you find in the charter or contract to begin building basic planning documents. At this point, they should be high-level, preliminary documents that will become part of your project management plan.
For example, concerning scope management, review information regarding the project scope and begin creating a requirements list. Capture the project scope statement. Begin generating the WBS. Develop a plan for performing integrated change control.
In a similar fashion, work your way through each of the project management areas and create the corresponding planning documents. Create a risk register, a stakeholder register, a project team contact list and so forth. Document the roles and responsibilities for each project team member. Don’t forget to begin the assumptions register. Capture every assumption you make while generating the preliminary project plan.
You’ll be reviewing the preliminary project plan in the kickoff meeting, so make a solid attempt at flushing it out as thoroughly as possible.
Did your review of lessons learned provided notice of additional risks? Document them. Capture any pertinent information that should be shared with the sponsor, the project team or other stakeholders.
Once you’ve created the first draft of the stakeholder register, seek to identify additional stakeholders. Consult with the stakeholders already identified. While you’re there, talk to them about additional risks that were not previously identified. Discuss and define the project success factors. Discover and document the benefits of performing the project. Document any additional project requirements that weren’t spelled out in the charter. Define the project goals and develop a list of deliverables.
You’ll have a lot of information to gather from the known stakeholders. Perhaps the most efficient way to gather the information is to create and distribute a survey. By using a survey, you provide each stakeholder with the ability to respond when it’s convenient.
Depending on whether the members of the project team are inside or outside the organization, secure the necessary project team members or obtain the commitments you’ll need from each team member and his or her supervisor.
Depending on the project type, this part will vary greatly. For a project that brings clean drinking water to a rural village, consider sharing some stories and pictures about the people the project will benefit. Will the unique or progressive nature of the project expand the professional repertoire of the project team members? Explain these benefits. Look to the purpose and benefits of the project and find ways to motivate and inspire the project team. Look also to an internal system of rewards and recognitions. If one is not already in place, develop one for your project.
If you are planning to use a visual theme throughout the project, this is the place to develop it. For example, the clean drinking water project might have a visual theme that includes a simple water drop and a transparent, blue color. All projects documents and written communications could carry the theme forward. The project work space could also bear the theme.
Help yourself to our kickoff meeting agenda template. Make it fit your needs. It’s editable.
Find a time that works for everyone and schedule a meeting space. Do everything possible to hold the kickoff meeting in person. This will give you an opportunity to evaluate non-verbal communication.
If some can’t be physically present at the kickoff meeting, make teleconference arrangements so they can participate remotely. As to meeting length, add a little more time than you think you might need. If the meeting must be conducted remotely, ask for feedback throughout the meeting and check often for understanding.
Invite the project team, the sponsor and additional project stakeholders. If you’re uncertain about whether someone should attend, invite them. It’s far better to have people who didn’t need to attend than to have neglected in include an important voice.
Along with the invitation, send each person a copy of the meeting agenda and the preliminary project management plan. Express clearly that the plan is a preliminary draft only. Ask that everyone review the documents before the meeting.
While you’re at it, make sure your space is still reserved.
Create a sign-in sheet with a place for name and email address. You’ll later communicate with those at the meeting.
Do you have enough seating? If you’re serving beverages, are they set up? If you’re using a projector or other technology, is it functioning properly? Should documents be passed out in advance of the meeting?
As each person enters the room, require that they sign in and provide their contact information. For those participating remotely, request that they send you an email with their contact information with the words “sign in” in the subject line.
This is how you step to the front of the project. By taking a clear lead, you place others at ease. You limit ambiguity and you don’t waste people’s time. Remind everyone that you have a lot to cover and that you will keep the meeting moving forward and on track. Remind them that there will be a question and answer session at the end.
Assign someone with the task of documenting the action items as they arise. Ask that they note the action, the responsible party, and the due date.
You will spend considerable time preparing for this meeting and your agenda will reflect it. March through the agenda, item by item. Watch your time and know where you should be at the quarter-way, half-way and three-quarter way mark. Keep on track and keep moving.
Assign someone with the task of documenting this section of the meeting. Field questions and provide answers. If you don’t know an answer, say so, then find the answer and share it with everyone later.
Announce the first client review meeting and the first project status meeting.
Make no exceptions here. End on time. Period. It will speak volumes about you. It says you are considerate of others, that you are in control of your meeting, and that you are well-organized. It speaks to your level of professionalism. If items for discussion remain, let everyone know you will schedule a subsequent meeting. In the alternative, allow questions to be sent to you. Later, send those questions and their answers to every person who attended the kickoff meeting.
Convert the meeting agenda into the meeting minutes. Keep the agenda information in place and add the information from the question and answer section. Add a visually distinct and separate section for the action items.
Thank everyone for attending the meeting. Send the meeting minutes and the action items, along with their due dates.
Record the action items on the project schedule, if that’s where they belong. Monitor to completion the status of each one.
Schedule the meeting spaces for the first client review meeting and the first project status meeting.
During the kickoff meeting you will have received additional information. Project team members will have verified your schedule estimates. This means the schedule management plan may need revised. The same will likely happen with the other subsidiary plans. Update the entire project management plan and redistribute it with the next project status report.
Doomed to Fail
Weak kickoff meetings are merely held, and often before adequate planning. They are characterized by having too many unknowns and a lack of clear direction. They start late, they end late and they fail to account for the input of valuable stakeholders. Weak kickoff meetings waste time and they expose the project to risk. They foreshadow project failure.
Destined to Succeed
Lead kickoff meetings that are powerful. Start them after ample planning. Seek input from others and motivate the project team. Set clear expectations, step to the front of the project, and lay the groundwork for success. The checklists above are sure to set you on the right path.
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