“Dear Elizabeth: I ran a kick-off meeting for my project, and it was a disaster. I tried to do the detailed planning, but the group wouldn’t focus, and no one seemed to share the same view about what the project was going to deliver. The experience has put me off running kick-off meetings in the future, but I have another project starting soon, so I’m going to have to do it. What are some rules of engagement for kick-off meetings, and how can I stop it being like last time?”
Your original email was a little longer than the question I’ve put above and helped me realize that what you were doing in that disastrous meeting wasn’t exactly what I would call a kick-off meeting.
The Point of a Kick-Off Meeting
You were using the time to try to get a project schedule put together. You do have to get a schedule prepared at some time, but a kick-off meeting isn’t the place to try to do that.
The point of a kick-off meeting is:
- To manage introductions for people who haven’t worked together before
- To ensure everyone knows what their role is in the project
- To get everyone on the same page about what the project is going to deliver
I wouldn’t use that time to do a detailed planning session, and I think that might be where it all started to go wrong for you.
So how should you approach this next kick-off? Let’s look at what makes a good kick-off meeting.
The Project Kick-Off
The project kick-off meeting is a way of making sure everyone has a shared understanding of what is going to happen and how it is going to happen.
Start with an agenda that should feature introductions and roles and responsibilities where these are already known.
If you have critical dates set in stone already, share them. While we all know it’s better to do detailed planning and then come up with the significant delivery milestones, that’s now how the world works. You might have to get a product out before the busy holiday buying season or finish something before the budget runs out at the end of the financial year. These are constraints your project has to work around, so get them out in the open now, so everyone knows about them.
Talk about how the project is going to be run. Are you using a predictive methodology? Are you using agile approaches for the work? Or a hybrid of both? Talking about how the work is going to be done continues on the theme of setting expectations for the month to come.
Ask for input from attendees as well – the meeting shouldn’t be you (or the project sponsor) talking at them for the whole time. Your attendees are key project stakeholders. They will have a view on assumptions and constraints, dependencies on other work, and probably other things you might not have even thought about yet. At this early stage of the project, their ideas might not be thoroughly considered, but all input is useful in helping the team shape the next steps.
The major failing of your prior experience with kick-off was that people had different ideas about what the project was for. The easiest way to stop all of that chatter is to utilize your kick-off meeting. That is the opportunity to say exactly what the project is going to do. On iterative projects, you may not have a finished idea in mind, but you’ll have some indication of the journey and business objectives.
The best way I’ve found to position the project is to ask the project sponsor to talk at the beginning of the meeting. They are usually the most senior person in the room. If they set out their expectations and objectives, then the murmurings of dissent and dissatisfaction are vastly reduced! You may find some challenge, but let the sponsor deal with that.
Another tactic is to have conversations about expectations and project scope with each attendee before the meeting. Then all you are doing in the kick-off session itself is to confirm what they’ve already been told. You avoid some of the conflict because you’ve had the opportunity to have those discussions outside of the group forum.
Chairing the Meeting
Kick-off meetings can be hard as everyone is new to the project. The group might not have worked together in the past. They might be busy with other work and resent being told this project is now the most important thing. They might have concerns about what they are being asked to do or how the project will be managed.
And all of these feelings can bubble up to make the meeting difficult.
Plan for these situations, and you’ll find the meeting is much smoother. Those conversations outside the room, before the meeting, are also helpful here.
Get a junior project manager or a PMO colleague to take notes for you, or to act as a scribe if you are brainstorming information on flip chart paper. Have a piece of paper pinned up for ‘parking lot’ points – topics that are worth discussing but don’t align with the discussion at hand right now. Don’t be afraid to use the parking lot to shut down a conversation that is derailing your agenda.
The more experience you have chairing and facilitating meetings, the easier it will be for you. So practice!
After the Meeting
Close the kick-off meeting by asking for input into the next steps. How will you take the project forward by creating a detailed plan? Ask for volunteers from the room or for subject matter experts in their teams to help you create the schedule. Set up separate meetings with these people to understand the work at the next level, so you can put it into a project schedule and share it for everyone to see.
The kick-off meeting is only the beginning. You’ll move on to those detailed planning workshops, and beyond. Keep everyone up-to-date by making sure the key players have access to project management software to see real-time information on the dashboard and project reporting.
Take these considerations into account, and I’m sure your next kick-off will be a better experience for everyone. Good luck!