When you think of project kickoff, what comes to mind first? Starting a fresh project where everything is right with the world? A new beginning with a new client who is excited and ready to work with you on the path to a successful end solution? A fresh start with zero issues and zero scope creep and zero change orders so far? A new project that is neither over budget or over time on the project timeline?
I guess it all depends on what frustrates us the most on our projects. The bottom line is this—at least from my perspective—the project kickoff is our best chance to lay it all on the line with the project client up front. We must set proper expectations, we must make sure everyone is on the same page, and we must make sure that the project client understands how the project is going to be run … how it is going to evolve into a final, successful solution that we will be delivering to them.
To get to and through an effective and successful project kickoff session…
The project manager—and team, if one has been assigned at that point—should follow these five general steps:
- Review the statement of work and any pre-engagement documentation. Hopefully, you have a statement of work (SOW) or similar document in hand from the finalization of the project and price and general work required. This document should contain at least a high-level description of the project goals, effort, technology requirements, key dates and deliverables, and assumptions. From this, you can begin to put together the first draft of the project schedule and begin planning out the tasks—and who will perform them—for the full project engagement.
- Introduce yourself to the project customer. Next, introduce yourself to the project customer as the person who will be handling their project for the remainder of the engagement. At this point, because you have thoroughly studied the SOW and all other early project documentation that you could get your hands on, you may be ready to ask questions of the project sponsor that will allow you to further pinpoint dates and tasks, and maybe clarify some assumptions on the project. The real focus of this step, however, is to get that initial introduction completed—to discuss when, where and how the project kickoff session will happen and who should attend. Once you have that info set, you can prepare the detail for the meeting.
- Draft a project schedule. At this point, you have all the information that you’re likely going to have in order to complete the first real draft of the project schedule. You may not have names of team members, but you know what types of positions you need filled on your team, so you can refer to them by title rather than by name. The key is to having it look as close to final and ready for the start of the project as possible in order to instill confidence in the customer that you and your team can get the job done right.
- Put together a presentation deck and have the customer review it. What you put together and how formal it becomes is really up to you, your organizational practices and policies, and your customer’s preferences. (I like to give this to the project sponsor in advance so there are no surprises during the meeting and I can get feedback from that person if they feel that there are other points they’d like to cover.) I usually choose to go with a PowerPoint presentation deck of 15-30 slides that lays out the following:
- General project purpose / goals
- Key dates and milestones
- Change control process
- Project management methodology
- Conduct the session and set up next steps. Finally, conduct the actual project kickoff session. Keep attendees to a minimum, if possible. You want the right people there to ask and answer questions, but you don’t want the room to be so full of customer end users that it becomes a requirements gathering meeting. I’ve let that happen once—never again! It was painful and turned a two-hour meeting into a two-day marathon.As always with a project-status meeting—and really the kickoff session is basically the first project-status meeting—you, the project manager, should follow up post-meeting with notes distributed to key stakeholders to ensure accuracy and common understanding. Request that any changes or additions be sent to you within 24 hours, then revise and resend. By doing this promptly, you ensure that all key players are on the same page within 24 hours or so of the kickoff and ready for the start of the real work on a productive (and hopefully very successful) project engagement.
Summary / call for input
To ensure that the project does actually start off on the right foot, you want to conduct the project kickoff in such a way that you get necessary questions answered, assumptions discussed, and expectations set. You, the team, all key stakeholders, and the project customer need to come out of that project kickoff session on the same page, with project expectations realistically set, and with everyone understanding what next steps will be happening and when.
What are your thoughts on these steps? What would you add to or change about the formal project kickoff session? Do you have any big kickoff success stories or nightmares you’d like to share?