Must-Haves For A Productive Kickoff Meeting

By Kurt Birkenhagen · June 7, 2017

When you kick off a project, you’re really forging a new company. This company won’t have its own letterhead, or have an earnings call, but, like any company, it needs:

  • A well-defined mission
  • Clear definition of roles and responsibilities
  • Motivated, fully-informed employees

In a project kickoff meeting, you put these three things in place.

The Mission

“The magic of a kickoff is to establish a common history and understanding of the project,” says Kelly Genzlinger, Chief Technology Officer at Meadowbrook Insurance Group. Kelly says she’ll often have “meetings before the meeting” so she can be sure she’s heard from all stakeholders. Then she synthesizes that information into infographic-style slides.

So, the work of a good project kickoff meeting starts well before the scheduled date.

David Radin, CEO & Co-creator of Confirmed Instant Scheduler, recommends that meeting leaders take these three steps:

  • Ensure that every stakeholder knows what the goals are for the project.
  • Ensure that every stakeholder’s own goals are included.
  • Ensure that every stakeholder knows which other stakeholders are participating, and what their goals are.

“It’s not a bad idea to include these in a strong introduction by the project leader,” recommends David.

Other must-haves include requirements, objectives, KPIs, and timeline, according to Kristin Ferguson, Director of Digital Media and Product Management at The Markey Group. She shares these via Slack or Confluence prior to the meeting.

“It is my goal to provide as much information as possible at the kick off to ensure all questions are answered from the get-go,” she says.

Inspiring enthusiasm is important too. “While this sounds silly, I always try to have a smile on my face,” says Sarah McCasland, Consulting Operations Manager at Modus Create. “It 100% changes the tone of your voice.”

Ultimately, the goal is for everyone to understand—and get excited about—the goal of this “new company.” Or, as CEO, speaker, and author Todd Mitchem put it: “What is the win?”

Says Todd: “With our clients, some of the world’s top companies, we must understand what the win is once the project is complete. This is also true for any inside company team. They too must fully understand the win so that when it is achieved all can celebrate.”

Question And Answer Session

After a strong introduction, ideally by the project owner, what’s next? Sarah Meerschaert, PMP, project manager for the Research and Development meeting at CenTrak, likes to open the floor to anyone. “Sometimes the most critical project issues can be uncovered during a free-form, back-and-forth discussion between the project stakeholders,” she says.

“Everyone brings a unique perspective and position on the project,” says J Wolfgang Goerlich, VP of Strategic Programs, CBI. “This is even truer in projects staffed by diverse and remote people.”

As the meeting begins, and even as the project progresses, every new team is going through Tuckman’s “Storming, Forming, Norming, and Performing” stages of group development, according to Alan Zucker, Founding Principal of Project Management Essentials LLC.

“The faster the team moves through these stages and becomes performing, the better,” he says. Being able to ask questions—what Zucker calls “transparency and democratizing forces”—is a key part of team development.

For this reason, Zucker recommends maxing out the travel budget for the kickoff meeting. “Having a social gathering or ‘team-building activities’ can help jumpstart this process,” he says. And face-to-face interaction can build trust. Says Zucker: “The chat in the break room or the shared joke during a presentation is invaluable.”

Sarah McCasland likes to facilitate personal interaction during the meeting. “We usually have each teammate take a minute to give some background information about themselves,” she says. “Often times, people start realizing they have more in common than just this project at hand.”

If you have a remote team, make an extra effort to include them in the discussion via a web meeting. “I like to open up chat as a way for remote team members to join the conversation,” says Meerschaert. “I can read their comments or questions to the team members in the room and ensure everyone is well heard.”

Process, Roles & Responsibilities

Once high-level questions have been resolved, it’s time to talk about what’s going to happen after the meeting’s over. Sally Kane, Content Director for PaperStreet Web Design, likes to display an outline of the entire process, step-by-step. This can help generate questions and serves as a reference for stakeholders throughout the process. Here’s one her company uses for website design projects.

A process discussion is vital when you’re working with anyone outside your team. Jonathan D. Roger, Certified ScrumMaster and Operations Director with AndPlus LLC, runs projects using the Agile development process. There’s one problem, says Jonathan: “As a consultancy, we have a lot of clients who start out with no earthly idea of how Agile or Scrum work.”

So, he says, “part of our kickoff meeting is a short-form training session to bring them into our process and our tools.” For a client who knows nothing about Agile, this is critical. But it can be a good idea for internal stakeholders, too. Dev. teams live Agile principles—or whatever their process is—every day. Their colleagues in product, marketing, and other functions will benefit from a reminder of how the project will proceed.

“I do not want any confusion in the slightest around who will accomplish what during the project,” says Todd Mitchem. “This essential step keeps the team focused and clear about the mission as well as their part in its success.”

The Next Steps Discussion

Near the meeting’s end, hit all of the dull but important logistics topics. “Many teams miss this final step,” says Mitchem, author of You Disrupted: Seizing the Life You Want by Shaking, Breaking, and Challenging Everything. He calls it “The Next Steps Discussion.”

Be sure to answer these questions:

  • Are there any action items? What are they and who will do them?
  • What are the upcoming check-in points?
  • What’s the meeting schedule?

Communications logistics are also important. Frank Garofalo of UX and interactive design consulting group, Garofalo Studios, recommends that teams:

  • Decide on communications mechanisms and task tracking mechanisms
  • Establish an “expectations of availability” schedule
  • Decide which meetings will take place via video, which via phone

Ending On A High Note

The most important way to end a meeting well is to end it on time. But if you leave yourself a few extra seconds, use them for a little bit of extra motivation.

Suggests Sarah McCasland: “Tell everyone how excited you are to be working with all of them—and make them feel valued and excited as well.”

Have the team visualize the end result and the reward of completion—what the win is. Or maybe focus on the process, the sense of togetherness, and the skills the team will develop along the way. Stay positive. We can do this.


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