You know something is wrong when people on your project team come to meetings unprepared and waste time on endless discussions, find other things to do than what your project requires, and do not openly acknowledge there is a problem.
These symptoms indicate a problem that appeared as early as your project kickoff.
Here is how to do kickoff meetings that work.
Importance of the project kickoff meeting
The kickoff meeting is where all stakeholders involved in your project get on the same page, regarding the goals, roles and responsibilities, constraints, risks, and all other aspects of the project management plan.
It is necessary for project success that the stakeholders share the understanding of the project goals, know the plan, and have confidence in the project – and it starts with the kickoff.
If you do all the preparatory work right, the stakeholders will know a lot information you share on the kickoff meeting. Everybody should know why the project is done, the main factors that influence the project, and have at least some idea about the plan, because you actively involved the stakeholders in the preparation.
In the meeting, the stakeholders will meet each other, confirm their understanding of the goals, discuss their role in the project outcome, and interact with each other to clarify and strengthen their working relationship on the project. For example, the suppliers could align with the production on the detailed delivery schedule and the risk mitigation plan. Or, your team could ask about how you will communicate with the product manager if changes to the project requirements are needed. Such discussions will help to create lines of communication, flag important risks you might have overlooked, see new opportunities, resulting in more confidence and commitment.
All major stakeholders of your project should attend. The project manager, the project sponsor, the project customer, and the project team must be there. Depending on the situation, consider inviting other major stakeholders, such as the program and portfolio managers, functional managers, or senior management.
Conduct the kickoff meeting before the bulk of the work related to the project execution is started. However, usually, some project work would have been done already, for example prototyping work aimed to rule out major risks related to the technical feasibility.
Why kicking off too early may hurt your project
The timing of the kickoff meeting is important for it to have maximum positive effect on your project.
However, put the emphasis not on the timing, but on the content quality. Some managers believe that, until the project is kicked off, no work is done, and the resources are sitting idle and therefore push for the early kickoff at all costs. Such managers do a huge disservice to their projects with ill-prepared kickoffs done in haste.
At the kickoff, if you only bring a vague idea of what the project is about, but do not set realistic goals and the plan on how to get there, you will probably create no engagement or accountability from your stakeholders. People will leave the room with no clue of what they should do next. Were they merely informed about the project? Are there any expectations from them specifically? What are the next steps?
Later, when it is time to act, the stakeholders will debate about what the goals of the project are and who should do what; they will question every aspect of the project and the momentum to drive the project forward will just not be there.
Get a commitment
Your stakeholders should leave the room with a commitment to achieve the project goals and agree on the plan to do so.
To get the commitment of the stakeholders, you will need to work closely with them before the kickoff to define and sharpen the following:
- Why the project is done. With your project sponsor, prepare the context and the business case. With the portfolio manager / PMO, align why this project was selected among others (see two simple questions to the portfolio management).
- Project goals. With your project sponsor, define the goals. Usually, you will want your goals to be SMART.
- Project constraints. With the sponsor, resource managers, PMO, and other stakeholders, define the time, budget, scope, quality, and other factors that constrain the project.
- Plan how to plan. Define your approach to planning. You can use rolling-wave planning approach or plan the project scope upfront.
- Scope of work and estimates. With the project team and other stakeholders, prepare the project scope and estimates for the time and cost. Create the baseline budget and schedule.
- Major risks and opportunities that affect the project and what to do about them. Have a meeting with your stakeholders to identify the major risks and opportunities and decide how you will manage them. If you have a good risk management plan, your stakeholders will be more confident in the successful outcome.
- Who is doing what. With your major stakeholders, define the roles and responsibilities on the project. You can use the RACI model.
- Next steps. There are two major reasons you should clearly articulate the next steps. First, as beautifully shown in Cliff Giley’s article, it can sometimes take too much effort to agree on “the whole thing”, and you do not want to drown in small questions. Next steps will provide a good basis for everyone to start. Second, well-defined next steps create a dynamic feeling about the project kickoff and allow you and your team to jump into action immediately.
If you do your homework well before the project kickoff and conduct the meeting with the right people at the right time, you will get a lot more commitment and confidence in the project success.