Principles for a good project kickoff

The initial stages of a project can make all the difference to its overall success, so the kickoff meeting needs proper planning and consideration.

It might be your role to bring the team together, or you see a need to run your project kickoffs more effectively. Either way, it’s pretty hard to find comprehensive and/or up-to-date guides for how to run them.  Much of the material is loaded with traditional project management terms (Collaboration Catalysts are often not formally trained as project managers), not tailored for a creative environment and do not place emphasis on how interactive they should be.

A particularly excellent guide is Kevin M. Hoffman’s “Kick Ass Kickoff meetings”, which is great for design-orientated projects and really conveys the thought, preparation, and collaborative approach to take.  I also wrote a brief guide to a creative team’s first meeting, with some of my main tips.

My four key principles for good kickoff meetings are: 1) preparation, 2) people, 3) purpose and 4) participation.

Preparation

Productive kickoff meetings require good preparation, and your aim is to find the best ways to generate ideas and gather opinions from your attendees. In fact, don’t see it as a meeting at all – see it as a workshop.  Design various exercises which guide your team members through the key questions and problems relating to the project. But keep your agenda flexible. Depending on the content that is generated, the discussions and the mood of the room, you might need to change things around on the day to keep the creativity going.

People

You might be inclined to only invite the key decision-makers to your kickoff meeting, but you’ll limit your project’s potential if you only hear the views from the top.  A true collaborative approach is to bring in everyone who will be involved – from strategy to delivery – to shape the project. They’ll contribute valuable insight from their position, as well as getting a clearer idea of the bigger picture for their own knowledge. The exercises you design will be to ensure that everyone has a chance to provide their views.

Purpose

One aim of the kickoff is to build the team’s energy and motivation around the project, and another is to make it practical. In her post “How to Increase Group IQ“, Annie Murphy Paul, wrote how the most effective teams discuss how they’re going to work together as well as what they’re going to do. Allocating some time to ask people to reflect on what works well (and not) in collaboration will help them to set up better working relationships.

Attendees will also need to come away with a clear idea of what’s happening next and their involvement in this. Ideally, rather than just distributing the meeting’s minutes, the raw notes will be analysed and developed into a document that the team can work from.

Participation

An effective kickoff meeting will be a highly collaborative experience and good facilitation makes the difference to this. Your role on the day is to encourage contributions from everyone and guide the meeting/workshop without getting involved in the ideas generation yourself. If you think this will be difficult because you are too close to the project, hire an external facilitator.  You’ll need to listen and reflect back key points, organise ideas and identify themes on the spot, find out attendees’ motivations for being involved and develop this into common goals.

Bearing these four principles in mind, a few small changes to your project kickoff can make a huge difference.

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