“Do you have some ‘Best Practices for Kickoff Meetings’?” my friend and web design/ digital marketing expert, Annie Wolock, asked me today. “I thought I should recalibrate before my client meeting next week.” (She doesn’t really need this, but you might know someone who does.)
What is a Kickoff Meeting? Different organizations use that term for meetings that happen at different times in a project – some at the initial meeting for Client/Sponsor agreement, some, as a preliminary planning effort for the team, for others, it’s post-planning to focus on how to execute. Clarify expectations.
Who attends kickoff meetings? That depends on the timing within the context of a project life cycle. Agendas and attendees are different if it’s an internal project meeting or a client-facing one. Is it a meeting where you’re dealing with only logistics, or politics, or both? Consider your desired outcome.
Do the people know each other already? Remember, it’s human beings who both make decisions and accomplish the tasks, and different people need different things, even when the tasks are the same. Does everyone share that perspective and know what those differences are? This is the beginning of building team dynamics.
Clarify the project scope. Does the Sponsor/ Client understand what they want and how hard or easy it is to accomplish? Has it already been documented and approved by the person requesting the project AND the team responsible for execution? Everyone agrees to the scope.
Has planning been done in advance? If it’s an external project, is there a SOW (legal Statement of Work)? If the Scope is clear, has a detailed Project Plan been developed – and was it developed by the actual people who are expected to work on it? Or is the kickoff an initial meeting to flesh out the details of what it will take to do the project? The amount of pre-planning determines your meeting purpose.
Decide who facilitates the meeting and finalize the agenda. The Client/ Customer or Sponsor (the internal Customer)? The Account Manager for the service provider? The Consultant/ Project Manager for the technical team that’s providing the service? Be sure to identify times for each agenda item.
Broad Project Insights
There are 5 things that can guarantee problems:
1. Undefined Scope
2. Unclear Roles
3. Unrealistic Estimates
4. Untargeted Communication
5. Unacknowledged Risk
(Download our infographic on The 5 UNs of UN-Success to avoid these issues.)
A kickoff meeting may or may not be the right time to address all of these concerns.
OK, this now looks like a multi-blog post effort 🙄, so I’m going to focus on what I imagine a service provider working with a client wants. However, you can apply these insights in most kickoff situations.
Why Have a Client Kickoff Meeting?
A kickoff meeting gets your project off to a great start by creating a shared understanding of what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and who’s involved. It establishes the way you’ll work together, communicate, and make decisions. It maps out a rough timeline and identifies risks, so your project has a much better chance of becoming a raging success.
Some assumptions here:
I’m speaking to the service provider who will facilitate the meeting,
The customer has already defined the scope of what they want in enough detail that the service provider has developed a plan with at least rough estimates for the purpose of discussing time, cost, and quality.
Use of the terms Customer/ Client is interchangeable.
Typically, the service provider is an organization, and the Consultant/ Project Manager is the individual within the organization who is responsible for providing the service to the Customer.
Even though the customer and service provider typically have had multiple discussions by this time, one of the primary purposes of a Kickoff Meeting is to make sure all the major players are on the same page. Most people come to a kickoff meeting with their own agendas. I don’t mean politics, although that’s certainly possible, but each person will have a role and they will be most concerned with the aspects of the project that affect them directly.
Pre Kickoff Meeting Planning
Prior to the meeting, all the Stakeholders should have seen the Project Charter. You don’t want to waste meeting time briefing people for the first time on the basics. People need time to read, think, and consider their responsibilities in advance. A Charter is typically a 1-page document that states the project:
High-level requirements and objectives
Assumptions and constraints
Resources (budget and skill sets)
Major risks (threats and opportunities)
List of stakeholders, including client and project leader
In preparation, you need to give some serious thought to the agenda – about who attends, what is the content and timing, and how you want to facilitate it. Here is an example with notes to consider.
Who gets Invited to a Kickoff Meeting?
Anyone who is affected by the project is a Stakeholder. Do ALL Stakeholders really need to attend? Probably not. There are the obvious ones like the sponsoring Customer, the Consultant/ PM, the service team who is doing the actual work, and any corresponding technical people on the client side who may be needed for content verification or technical interface.
The less obvious ones are someone from corporate communications, sales, legal, finance, and possibly external suppliers or local authorities. Depending on the nature of the project they need to be considered, but they may not need to actually attend the Kickoff Meeting. Discuss this and agree with your client in advance.
Kickoff Meeting Agenda Content
Introductions & roles
Agreement on the vision
Definition of success
Approach/ methodology & priorities
Communication plan & approvals
Introductions & Roles
Even if some of you have worked together before, chances are high that not all of you have – and certainly not in this combination. So even if everyone knows everyone else’s name, they don’t necessarily have the kind of trusting relationship that’s needed to work together at their best.
You, as the Project Manager want to set a tone that’s going to serve the goal of best performance throughout the project. Recognizing people for who they are establishes the groundwork for building solid trust.
Depending on the amount of time you have, my first choice is to have had everyone take the Everything DiSC® assessment to understand everyone’s preferred, specific working styles.
Are they more active and fast-paced or calmer and more methodical?
Are they more skeptical and logic-focused or empathetic and people-focused?
Knowing your style and being able to take into consideration the style of others makes the work environment much more pleasant and effective. (Of course, attention and skill factor into that.)
However, we often have very little time. In that case, in addition to name and role on the project, design a question to create a personal connection. “What’s your favorite food to cook or eat?” “If you were a superhero, what would your name be?” “If you wrote a memoir, what would it’s title be?” Give people a bit of time to think. We can learn from these questions – not just what they like to eat and whether they like to cook, but you learn that naming things can be tricky or summarizing something complex can be tough. Give your questions some thought – it will help set the tone for collaboration on your future work together.
Agreement on the Vision
Although I just said all Stakeholders should have read the Project Charter before the meeting, it doesn’t mean they have, or even if they read it, they agree. Understanding the “why” and the “what” of the project is more meaningful and creates more commitment if it is done in an interactive way. Here are two exercises you can use to confirm or modify the vision.
1. Fill in the Blanks
Give each participant 3 sticky notes. Without them looking at any documentation, have each participant fill in each of the 3 blanks below individually (one post-it per blank space), then post it on the wall.
“For Client X, this project (insert name) solves/ creates/ provides (1. insert PROBLEM STATEMENT). Unlike (2. FORMER SYSTEM or PRODUCT or COMPETITION), it will improve/ do/ be/ (3. DIFFERENTIATOR).
For remote meetings, give attendees time to think and decide on their own 3 answers. Then assign each participant to one of 3 breakout rooms – one for each blank in the vision statement. Have them fill in their answer for that specific blank. Rotate them through the rooms until each person has written their answers in each of the three categories above.
Discuss the range of answers, clarify, and agree. This may take some time, but time clarifying upfront saves many hours of rework later on.
2. In or Out of Scope?
Develop alignment on what’s in scope and what’s not. Write on a whiteboard “in scope” on one side and “out of scope” on the other side. Give everyone a marker and /or sticky notes and ask them to put tasks (or features, or issues to solve) in each area from their perspective. Remotely, you can use the same technique. You’ll immediately see where there’s broad agreement, and where there’s uncertainty. If you can’t resolve discrepancies in a relatively short time during the kick-off meeting, schedule a follow up shortly so that your team sees a clear path forward.
Define Metrics for Success
Clarify the vision you just created by determining objectives – relatively easy-to-measure metrics to have as goals. These should be the kinds of criteria that enable team members to make decisions and take appropriate actions to move the project and their work in the right direction.
Without clear, measurable objectives, team members are more likely to wander off track, expanding or diverging from the tasks that need to be accomplished.
Ask people to write down what success will look like when the project is complete. What does “complete” mean? Is the website launched? Is it working the way you expected after the installation? Are the client’s customers using it – and at the speed or amount you imagined? Would it be considered successful if only 70% of users were happy with it? Discuss how you might measure each concept you come up with. Agree on some clear, workable metrics.
This is critical if the general way you intend to develop this project is either very “traditional” or might not be what the client expects. What comes to mind here is using an “agile” methodology, in which the Client has the responsibility to re-evaluate the project deliverables on a frequent basis (typically every two weeks), or a “standard” approach in which all the requirements and deliverables are agreed upon up front and the team is working toward the initial goal consistently throughout the project. Or perhaps it’s a combination.
This is not the time to go into detail about what the tasks will involve. It is simply to clarify the way the Client, Project Manager, and Team are planning to work together. This is also a time to clarify the Client’s priorities. These are often referred to as “Triple Constraints: Time, Cost, Quality.” You know the old adage, “You can’t get it good, fast, AND cheap!” What do they think is most important, and what has flexibility?
Customer satisfaction is the context in which you have to consider those three constraints. This is an opportunity to set yourself up for success. Sure, you’re positioning yourself as being on the Client’s side – but you are also positioning yourself as the expert who will guide them through a complex and successful journey to achieve their goals. Show them that understanding their desires and keeping them in balance is key.
We live in an ever-changing world. Of course, priorities can change, but you can’t manage well without understanding what those priorities are in the first place. You are there to help the client clarify with everyone what is most important to them at this point in time. Sometimes they haven’t considered that question and have only thought in “best case scenario” terms. Kickoff Meetings are a time for clarity.
Many people are accustomed to evaluating the lessons they have learned at the end of a project. I have found there is great benefit from also doing it at the beginning. “Why?” you might ask. Assuming you have a team with at least some prior experience in comparative projects, they can be a wealth of insight to make your future project more successful.
Here’s an exercise you can have your attendees do to gain those insights:
In person: Give each participant a stack of sticky-notes. Have them write down an issue they experienced that created a problem on a similar project - 1 problem per note.
Do NOT write, “Came in over budget.” Be specific – what caused the budget overage? Was it unrealistic estimates because it was an innovation project and no one had ever done those tasks before? Or was the budget forced to be cut 10% at the beginning because the Sponsor thought it was too high? Or did a fluke weather event, like a tornado, cause extra labor or material costs?
Have them write as many as possible in a short period of time. Collect the notes and together group them into categories, (technically, this is called an “affinity diagram”). If multiple people have identified the same issue, you can give it weight as something more likely or more relevant.
Review them as a group and roughly evaluate how likely it might occur on THIS project. Determine if you need to do or take something new into account immediately. Save the data for entry into a proper risk analysis.
Virtually: You can do this same process remotely; just be sure that people are given time to write down a number of experiences before they display them online. To increase safety/anonymity, you can have people share in smaller groups - triad or dyad breakout rooms before presenting to the whole group. Do not “brainstorm,” as that tends to influence others in the group to think the same way, rather than to get people to reflect thoughtfully on their own.
In addition to gathering good data, an interactive exercise like this bonds the Client and the Team as one – all reflecting on their experiences, and putting their best thinking forward for the success of the project. It diminishes a potential “Us vs. Them” dynamic that can sometimes occur when the requestor and the service provider later experience issues and have had little interaction with each other. With this exercise, they are on the same page and the same side – and that encourages a continued alliance throughout the whole initiative.
Communication Plan & Approvals
Bad communication is one of the five factors that can kill a project’s success. A traditional and very workable way to address it is twofold:
1) A simple list with names, emails, phone numbers, and each person’s area of expertise, so everyone can communicate.
2) A RACI chart for identifying roles related to tasks (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed).
A RACI chart is usually developed at a more detailed task level but can be helpful in a Kickoff Meeting at a high level. Some groups use a DACI (Driver, Approver, Contributor, Informed) framework to clarify roles. It doesn’t matter what you call it, as long as everyone understands and uses the same consistent terminology. Here is a simple high-level example:
Later, when the team gets to the more detailed planning process of a Work Breakdown Structure, these larger categories can be broken down into specific tasks with individual people responsible.
What is critical at the kickoff meeting is that people to know who the players are, what their responsibilities are, and how best to communicate with them.
It helps to set communication expectations:
How often communication will happen (weekly?)
What form it will be in, (status reports, zoom meetings, both?)
Who is responsible for initiating, facilitating, and receiving various communications?
Areas and Levels of Approval Should be Identified
In addition to technical approvals, are there threshold amounts for budget variances or project time changes that can be made without the Client’s approval? Do individual team members have flexibility? I once had a large client that required 2 written levels of approval for any purchase over $50. The result was that individual team members were paying out of their own pockets for organization expenses (and resenting it) and the company was wasting $400 worth of executives’ time to approve a $50 invoice. Think it through and be reasonable.
Write down decisions. Identify who will execute the actions and by when. Follow up to make sure they are done on time.
Then carry on with terrifically successful projects!