Ready? Set. Go!

by Sarah Fister Gale

When schedules are tight and stakeholders are anxious to get a project moving, it’s easy to skip the official kickoff meeting and jump into action. 

Resist the temptation.

Organizations waste an average of US$97 million for every US$1 billion invested in major projects, according to PMI’s 2017 Pulse of the Profession® survey. And at least part of the blame lies with teams skipping crucial planning and team-building efforts at project launch, which then leads to costly problems down the line.

“The kickoff meeting provides an opportunity for the project leader to articulate to the team the importance of the project to the organization,” says Heide Abelli, senior vice president of content management at Skillsoft, a global corporate learning company in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. “It helps members of the project team get to the meaning and the impact of the work they’ll do.”

Heide Abelli, senior vice president of content management at Skillsoft

The kickoff meeting provides an opportunity for the project leader to articulate to the team the importance of the project to the organization.

Senior Vice President of Content Management at Skillsoft

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

These meetings also convey the organization’s — and leader’s — commitment to the project, says Phil Buckley, managing director at Change with Confidence, a change management consultancy in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Showing that passion can not only build excitement, but help quell any concerns or resistance. “When leaders talk about how the project will create value for the organization and the people who work in it, the team starts thinking about the future instead of resisting the present.”

It doesn’t matter what approach the team is using — agile, waterfall or a hybrid — the goal of a kickoff meeting is the same. “It’s about creating alignment,” says Ali Zewail, co-founder and CEO of Chaino, a social network software company with operations in Cairo, Egypt.

All kickoff meetings should cover some basics: a project charter that defines the project and how it ties to organizational goals, a project plan and key deliverables. But the format is often tweaked depending on the approach taken:

Waterfall: Let’s Talk Tasks

Kickoff meetings for projects managed with waterfall tend to be more formal and focused on the tasks, Mr. Zewail says. Attendees are usually limited to the team leader, sponsor and core team, and the meeting typically covers defining key deliverables, milestones and performance expectations, he says. The project leader may present an overview of the contract and project plans, and review the scope, schedule and budget.

“It’s less about the softer aspect of team management and more about outcomes,” Mr. Zewail says.

Ali Zewail, co-founder and CEO of Chaino

These meetings are treated as an opportunity to jell the team together and to create momentum.

Co-Founder and CEO of Chaino, a social network software company

Cairo, Egypt

Kickoffs also help uncover assumptions that threaten to sabotage those outcomes. Last year, for example, Mr. Buckley led a meeting for a team prepping to implement an analytics and data-mining software system. During that session, it came out that there had been a similar implementation project five years prior, which had failed due to a poor launch and lack of support for end users.

For the new project to succeed, the team had to show how this implementation would be different and that it would provide the upfront support lacking in the previous one. “If we hadn’t identified this risk in the kickoff,” Mr. Buckley says, “it might not have come out until months into the project, and the risk of failure would have been much higher.”

Agile: Go, Team, Go

For teams using agile, kickoff meetings tend to center more on team-building activities than hammering out project details. The attendee list is also larger and might include the core team, sponsors, champions and end users.

“These meetings are treated as an opportunity to jell the team together and to create momentum,” Mr. Zewail says.

Sometimes they feel more like the first day of school than a business meeting.

Teams often break into small groups to brainstorm and then regroup to share their understanding, says Rebecca Jones, agile coach at Boost, a web and app developer in Wellington, New Zealand.

Rebecca Jones, agile coach at Boost

These activities are a chance for the team to paint a shared picture of what success looks like.

Agile Coach at Boost, a web and app developer

Wellington, New Zealand

To get everyone into the collaborative spirit, she relies on exercises such as having the team craft an “elevator pitch”: Small groups come up with a short pitch about the project’s distinctive selling point. She may also have them write a faux press release that touts how the project solves a problem, its innovative features, and quotes from the project owner and an end user.

“These activities are a chance for the team to paint a shared picture of what success looks like,” Ms. Jones says.

And if the stories they generate are wildly different, she knows they need to revisit the project vision and goals before moving forward.

Hybrid: A Little Bit of This, A Little Bit of That

Not surprisingly, kickoffs for teams using a hybrid approach draw from techniques used in agile and waterfall launch meetings. The format usually skews with how far the team leans toward an approach, Mr. Zewail says.

Along with a review of the project scope and deliverables, these meetings devote time to defining each project member’s role, and clarifying how and when teams will communicate, i.e., through daily scrums or standup meetings. Teams will also define stakeholder responsibilities, including when they’ll be expected to provide feedback and review milestones.

Phil Buckley, managing director at Change with Confidence

The best kickoff meetings empower the team to manage itself and to work together toward achieving a shared vision of the project.

Managing Director at Change with Confidence, a change management consultancy

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

No matter the approach, the ultimate goal of kickoff meetings is to ensure all team members concur on the project plan and their role in delivering it.

“It can’t just be leaders standing in front of the room telling people what to do,” Mr. Buckley says. “The best kickoff meetings empower the team to manage itself and to work together toward achieving a shared vision of the project.”

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