You never get a second chance to make a first impression. I think we’ve all heard that expression, right? And it makes sense…that first impression – especially with an all-important project customer who’s trust and confidence may be critical to the success of the project – is extremely important. If you don’t make that good first impression as the project manager entrusted to their project and their project dollars, then you will be fighting an uphill battle trying to win their trust and confidence for possibly the entire rest of the project. It’s not like you don’t already have enough on your plate.
The project kickoff is that first impression that you want to nail. And to do that requires some planning, hard work, preparation and a good plan. Let’s go through the 4 steps that I like to go through to get the project kicked off right and get expectations set properly so that the real work on the project can start promptly after kickoff…
Gather the SOW and all available project info.
First, make sure you have all project info that is available to you. Likely, that will include a statement of work (SOW) that outlines key deliverables, dates and milestones, as well as assumptions, a high-level staffing plan, and probably some overall high-level project requirements. There is likely some type of draft project plan that an account manager put together to show the client that you can get the project done on time. In terms of real, usable detail on the project, it may be garbage to the project manager. But it may serve as a starting point and since the customer has it in his hands, you must have it in your hands. Also look around for any other material like mockups for potential reports, etc. Anything and everything you can find at this point is relevant.
Create a detailed agenda and presentation packet.
Next, using this information, create a formal presentation packet – probably something like a group of PowerPoint slides that you can use to present to the client to show that you understand the project, to identify what you want to discuss at a high level during the project kickoff and to give the project client insight into how you will manage communication, scope, and change on the project. Somewhere in there you must also be ready to show the key dates and milestones and what your project team will look like. The goal of this material that you will present and cover is to set proper expectations on both sides of the project on what needs to be accomplished, how it will be accomplished and when it will be accomplished so that everyone leaves with the same expectations and ready for the next detailed steps of the project. From that presentation packet, create a detailed agenda that outlines what will be covered/discussed during kickoff.
Meet the customer and review the kickoff materials.
Next, meet with the project client, introduce yourself as the project manager and provide them with a copy of the draft presentation materials for the kickoff session. Discuss when and where the kickoff will happen and who should be in attendance. It is important that you set attendance expectations. Why? Because I’ve led project kickoff meetings when I did not do this and attendance can get out of hand. The customer may bring 30 end users with them and quickly turn a nice kickoff meeting into a design session…so a kickoff session that should be over in 2-3 hours goes on for two days. Avoid that at all costs.
Conduct the kickoff.
Finally, conduct the kickoff session. This is the project manager’s meeting – and the project team if one has been appointed at this point. The customer participates, but it is the project manager’s job to set proper expectations for the next steps…and really the rest of the project. Things, of course, will change along the way, but out of the gate…as everyone leaves the project kickoff session…you must all be on the same page. And the project manager must appear to be in complete control. It’s about grabbing and maintaining control and authority of the project from the outset and thus giving the customer that all-important excellent first impression of how you are going to function in the role of managing their project.
Summary / call for input
Some projects will be more formal than others, more complex than others, and more visible than others. Not all projects are created equal. So the kickoff sessions for different projects will be different. Some need a large entourage traveling across the country to kick it off and others need a one-hour conference call. But all projects need some sort of kickoff session to make sure everyone has a common understanding of the project and what happens next.
What is your process for project kickoffs? Do you agree with these steps? What would you change about this list?