In practical terms, the project kickoff is the equivalent of a grand opening. It's the start of your project, where all key stakeholders come together for a common purpose and to share common expectations. It's a way to set the stage for all the work to come, laying a foundation of information and enthusiasm. And, like any other "grand opening" timing is everything. Read on for more.
The Purpose of a Project Kickoff
The project kickoff is your chance to create a lasting, positive "impression" (and sufficient good will) to carry you and your team through the steps, tasks and decisions that lie ahead. For management purposes, a well planned and executed kickoff meeting will accomplish the following:
- Present the project and the project team to all the stakeholders.
- Generate excitement and enthusiasm for the project.
- Ensure that everyone is on the same page as the project begins, creating shared expectations.
- Build confidence and credibility in the performing organization.
- Establish open lines of communication and promote active participation.
- Demonstrate that the project is worthy of all the time and effort (and something "to be part of").
As this list demonstrates, the project kickoff is largely a team building and "public relations" event, but that makes it no less critical to the technical aspects of effective project planning and execution. No project can be successful without a dedicated project team and committed stakeholders. It takes shared perceptions and a common vision to reach this level of engagement, and the project kickoff is the best means to achieve those ends.
Kickoff Timing: Picking the Right Moment
It may seem counterintuitive at some level, but kickoff does not equal "first". Chances are you will have already held numerous meetings before the project kickoff (including meetings to plan the kickoff event itself). Before a project can be "kicked off", it has to be proposed, selected and defined. You have to know what you are working towards, why it matters, who is involved, and what will be accomplished. While the timing of any given kickoff event will vary based on project size, complexity and related circumstances, it cannot serve its intended purpose unless and until the project vision and scope has been sufficiently defined. (Example: An accepted Statement of Work is a viable checkpoint for a project kickoff).
Break-out Session Tip: Not every kickoff participant will need the same level of detail and information. To meet your intended goals, the main kickoff event should present 'the big picture', providing as much detail as needed to meet essential kickoff goals. If you have a large, diverse audience of project customers, management and team members, you should include all parties in a consolidated event, and then branch off into break-out sessions (or workgroups) for more detailed, in the weeds presentations. Look for common interests and where needs diverge; allocate that information to the appropriate breakout sessions.
Developing a Good Kickoff Agenda
The primary goal of any effective kickoff event is to share and communicate that approved vision, and to empower the team to make that vision a reality. Without an approved vision, there is nothing to "kickoff". An actionable kickoff agenda must reflect these needs and requirements, covering all of the following executable elements:
- Opening: To welcome all participants and set kickoff expectations.
- Who's Who?: To introduce the project team and stakeholders.
- How Did We Get Here?: To explain the project background and preceding events.
- Present the Project: To explain the project purpose, vision and scope.
- Present the Process: To explain how the project will be managed and executed.
- What Happens Next?: To explain what will happen after the kickoff.
- Q & A Session: To engage in an active dialogue with kickoff participants.
- Closing: To thank the participants and build momentum.
The time and effort put into kickoff planning should be appropriately "sized" to the needs and complexity of the subject project. Larger, more complex projects will likely require more substantial and formal kickoff events. But no matter how formal or extensive, every kickoff should be planned to ensure that all "kickoff" goals and objectives are met, within existing constraints (time, funding, resources):
16 Questions for Kickoff Planning
- What are your kickoff goals, objectives and presentation requirements?
- How much time is required to meet these goals, objectives and requirements?
- When and where will the kickoff be held and what are the logistical requirements?
- Are there any known constraints to kickoff timing and logistics and how will they be overcome?
- What is the available budget?
- Who will be involved in kickoff planning, preparation and execution?
- Who are the expected participants in the kickoff event?
- Who are the critical participants in the kickoff event?
- What type of information will be presented at the kickoff?
- How will that information be presented?
- How will presentation materials be prepared?
- Will breakout sessions be required? (see tip below).
- How much time and effort will be required for kickoff planning and preparation?
- Will the kickoff include team building games and/or exercises?
- If so, who will be responsible for selecting and executing these games/exercises?
- How will you know if the kickoff event has been a success?
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Put it Together and Make it Work
From a content perspective, kickoff agendas should begin with a discussion of the project background (e.g. how did this project come to pass?). The project team should be introduced, individually, and as part of the overall project organizational structure. All essential project elements and variables should then be discussed, including project goals, objectives, scope, deliverables, budget, risks, assumptions, constraints and success criteria. Each element should also be presented in sufficient, engaging terms so as to demonstrate expected value (e.g. why is the project important).
"Process" timelines and practices should also be clearly communicated, showing how the project will be executed, including procedures to be followed, the expected timeline, key milestones, stakeholder roles, and related responsibilities. The kickoff should conclude with a clear specification of "next steps" in order to build and maintain momentum. The key to an effective kickoff agenda is to present the required information in an entertaining manner, encouraging questions, feedback and an open exchange of ideas, generating excitement for the project that lies ahead. Be creative, be humorous when warranted, serious when needed, and always realistic. Be honest about the unknowns, open about the risks and upbeat about the opportunities.
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