A successful project manager doesn't enter any individual project engagement overconfident about the eventual outcome. While best practices are important and generally fairly logical in nature, so many things can be outside of the project manager's control no matter how experienced, certified and organized they may be.
I'm not saying success is based on luck, but it never hurts to have some on your side. That’s why I want to talk about something that’s within your control: A project kickoff meeting.
No two projects will ever be the same - there will inevitably be a handful of change orders and some vague requirements. And almost no project ever goes off without a hitch, regardless of how much planning is put into the effort and no matter how good the customer participation may be.
Have I scared you enough? Okay, ready, set, GO! But wait... not so fast. Are you truly familiar with the project? Do you know the client? Do you have an idea of the business processes? Do you understand the "as is" environment and the "to be" environment?
The answer is probably no, or should be no unless you've had a proper kickoff to the project. By kickoff, I mean a formal project kickoff meeting that brings the two sides together - delivery team and customer team - and lays the groundwork for how the project will be run and what is going to be happening for the next few months while you’re spending the client's money developing an end solution.
Why is a project kickoff meeting so important?
In order to derive proper benefits from a project kickoff meeting, it must be executed properly. So why is the kickoff meeting so important, and what benefits are derived from it?
Here are the key benefits of the project kickoff meeting:
- Discuss and finalize key dates for the project
- Discuss and understand the processes of how the project will be run
- Discuss the communications on the project
- Meet the project customer sponsor and team, and potentially some subject matter experts (SMEs) and key end users
- Review assumptions and make clarifications as needed
- Discuss immediate next steps, dates, and locations for any co-located activities
Basically, the project kickoff meeting with the client gives you an opportunity to speak with the client, project team, and key stakeholders to get a broader understanding of the project background, reasons for undertaking the project, and the ideal outcome. This is a more detailed project briefing than you might otherwise get just from a casual conversation with the project sponsor and a more detailed discussion focused on how everyone will make the project a success together.
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Internal vs. external project kickoff
Let's next consider the differences between an internal vs. external project kickoff.
External kickoff is critical because that's where the rubber meets the road with the project customer and team. It’s where you can build a common understanding to operate from the same page. Knowing the next steps and expectations for the next month and for the rest of the project is extremely important for customer confidence and satisfaction. For me, this is one of the big three ingredients for project success (the other two being on budget and on time delivery of the end project solution).
But what about the internal kickoff? The team must be assembled, educated, given tasks for ownership and accountability and start working toward the common goals of the project and customer. Ideally, this happens before the formal external customer project kickoff. However, most of the project resources at customer kickoff time are often only resource types and skill sets on a piece of paper, not real assigned resources with names and resumes. The real resources are still working on other projects full time because the real work on this project in question has not started yet.
Sometimes I may have the luxury of taking a business analyst with me to a customer kickoff meeting, but often it's just me and a vice president or PMO director and trust me... it's not the same thing. Whenever the internal kickoff meeting does happen with your real, fully assigned and assembled team – either before or after customer kickoff – that's when the project manager works to ensure the following:
- Everyone understands the draft project schedule and assists with finalizing it
- Everyone understands the goals of the project
- Assumptions are reviewed and legitimized
- Initial thought is given to risk management so that concept can be further addressed when planning and design with the customer begins
- Tasks begin to be designated to team members and the real work starts to happen
Steps to conducting a successful project kickoff meeting
Every kickoff meeting, of course, is going to be different. The amount of detail, expense, time, travel and attendance is going to vary based on the visibility, nature, or even industry of the project. But there are a few fundamental steps that will always be necessary in order to help ensure that what you need to accomplish from such a meeting actually gets accomplished.
As stated above, the kickoff meeting is the process of getting to know the other side, laying the groundwork for communication and processes, methodology for the project and understanding and finalizing dates, deliverables, assumptions, team member roles and next steps as you embark on this important adventure. I think we would all agree that each project can be somewhat of an adventure, right?
For me, it comes down to these four basic steps to getting the formal project customer kickoff meeting right.
Acquire all available materials
First, there was a sale somewhere for the project engagement. As part of that sale, there should be the sales person's or account manager's notes as they met with the potential client organization and discussed some high-level requirements, mapped out some reports, jotted down some assumptions, and cobbled together some sort of project timeline, resource plan, and statement of work (SOW) in order to come up with a price.
You need those things – you must have those things!
The odds that the salesperson “got it all right” are low, but you have to start somewhere and those notes and promises are where your client is right now, so that's where you need to be as your starting point.
Meet the project customer
The next step in the kickoff process is to get to know the customer you will be working with over the next several weeks or months. While the actual kickoff session should be in person if, at all possible, this initial introduction is usually going to be a phone call unless the customer is just across the city from you.
Reach out, explain the project – as you see it – to them to make sure initially you are close to “on the same page” and give them some background on your experience, successes and how you plan to run the project. Discuss the kickoff session that will happen, what its purpose is, and what will happen during that kickoff. You should also figure out a date and location for the kickoff meeting, and discuss who should attend. Don't overlook the importance of the attendees – I did once and the customer brought in literally everyone... turning a 3-hour kickoff into a 2-day session.
Put together kickoff presentation materials
Next, it's time to put together more detailed information about the project and prepare a presentation for the kickoff session. Revise the initial draft schedule acquired early on, put in some real deliverables, dates, effort estimates and dependencies. This will serve as the first real baseline schedule for the project going forward but will also be a main discussion piece for the formal project kickoff session.
More information to present is the methodology you plan to use, how change orders will be originated, managed and executed, and what happens immediately following the project kickoff.
You want to come out of the kickoff session with everyone on the same page and ready to hit the ground running. Provide the kickoff meeting presentation in advance to the client so you can get any feedback, incorporate any additional information, and make the actual kickoff go more smoothly by avoiding any surprises in the materials.
Conduct the kickoff session
Finally, conduct the formal kickoff session with the customer. Remember, the main purpose is to get everyone in agreement and on the same page to establish what is happening next and who the key players are in the next steps. If you have any or all of the team actually assembled at this point, they should all be there as well for introduction and discussion. Whatever you can do to ensure 100% productivity as quickly as possible on both sides of the project is what you need to do and that will keep the project on track from the start.
The bottom line is this: the project that starts off on the right foot and has the proper kickoff session or sessions is the project that has a much stronger likelihood of finishing the same way. If everyone is on the same page at the end of the project kickoff – which is really the main goal – then communication is easier, design and development can start with a common understanding and requirements are going to be easier to understand, document, create from and test against, leading to ultimate project success.
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