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The Importance of an Effective Project Kickoff

In order to run an effective and successful project, there are some critical things that need to happen right and in the right order as well. Communication – good, effective, efficient communication – is key to project success and probably one of the most important things the project manager does throughout the engagement. Good, complete requirements are the lifeblood of the project. Without accurate, complete requirements that are well-documented and easily reference-able, the project will not likely stay on budget or on time and may be doomed to failure. And finally, a project that is not properly and formally kicked off jointly with the project customer may get off track before it ever gets a chance to start. It’s all about setting proper and accurate expectations right out of the gate and that likely won’t happen without such a kickoff.

It’s this area that I’d like to explore here and I welcome your thoughts and input on this key area of project success. So just what does it take to conduct a proper, formal project kickoff?  I think I could ask fifteen experienced project managers and get fifteen different answers. Some elements would be similar, but I bet no two responses would be close enough to be considered the same. So, I will give you my views and let you respond with your own. In this order, here is what I do and what I consider to be the five key steps to proper project kickoff…

Gather all project documentation to date. The account manager who closed the project deal always has documentation. A rough draft schedule. A mocked-up dashboard report. At least a rough statement of work (SOW), some high-level requirements, a draft resource forecast and a project budget…at least a high-level one since he or she had to come up with a sales price somehow and prove it to the project client. This is likely going to be all the information you get, best scenario, to work with so you’ll have to run with whatever you’re given. But it should be enough to derive what the project is about and what it is going to take – at least at a high-level at this point – to get the job done.

Create the draft schedule. Next, take this information that you have pieced together and, along with any portion of your project team that may be assigned at this point – or alone if you prefer or have no team yet – start drafting the project schedule to the best of your ability. Don’t start from scratch – that takes too long. Pull out a schedule “sample” from a past similar successful project and use it as a shell. Good, experienced project managers always have past project samples and templates that worked well on a project. Why re-invent the wheel every time? There’s no shame in re-cycling. Starting from scratch is painful and slow and you can end up overlooking some details.

Handling the introduction. After you have a few things in place, meet or call the new project client. Introduce yourself, discuss the project, touch on some highlights of the project schedule you’re putting together. The goal is to get to know them, give them a comfortable, confident feeling about your knowledge and competence to lead their project, and discuss dates and locations for the project kickoff meeting. Also, discuss who should attend. I failed to do that with one huge client on a fairly complex project and they showed up with more than 30 end users. What should have been a two hour project kickoff meeting turned into a 2-day requirements meeting. It was painful and inappropriate at that early stage. I’m happy to say that I’ve gotten better at crowd control and kickoff meeting planning since that day.

Putting it all together. Next, put together presentation materials for the kickoff session. I like to put together a Powerpoint deck of several slides that discuss the goals of the project, general target dates and milestones, a high-level resource plan, the change control methodology that will be utilized, the overall project management processes that will be followed and what happens next after the kickoff meeting. The goal is to leave the kickoff session with expectations properly set for the engagement and have everyone on the same page. You can save these materials till the meeting or provide them to the client in advance. I like to send them in advance to get their approval and maybe any changes or additions they’d like to see.

The formal kickoff. Finally, conduct the session. You drive the meeting so keep the crowd under control and the discussion focused. Keep focused on what you want to get out of the kickoff session. And follow-up after with notes for key stakeholders – asking them to confirm understanding or to respond with any changes to your notes within 24 hours. Again, you want everyone on the same page as quickly as possible so you can move on productively with next steps.

Summary / Call for Input
From my viewpoint, how you start the project can set the tone for much of the project. The customer either sees you as confident or competent or they don’t – and much of that comes out of this “take charge and set expectations” session. If you don’t pull off a good, formal project kickoff session with the customer, you may spend the next couple of phases of the project proving to them that you and your team can do the job. Project life can be much easier if you set the tone at the start with a good project kickoff and they are confident of your abilities to handle the project right from the start.

How about our readers? What’s your take on the importance of a good project kickoff? And do you agree with these steps? If not, what does your list look like?

About Brad Egeland
Brad Egeland is a Business Solution Designer and IT/PM consultant and author with over 25 years of software development, management, and project management experience leading initiatives in Manufacturing, Government Contracting, Creative Design, Gaming and Hospitality, Retail Operations, Aviation and Airline, Pharmaceutical, Start-ups, Healthcare, Higher Education, Non-profit, High-Tech, Engineering and general IT. Brad is married, a father of 11, and living in sunny Las Vegas, NV. Visit Brad’s site at https://www.bradegeland.com/.

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