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A handy ref­er­ence for set­ting up and run­ning a suc­cess­ful project start

Meet­ing bliss is hard to attain — most of us oper­ate some­where between over-meetinged’ and under-informed. It doesn’t help that our thoughts and behav­iours around meet­ings don’t match: com­pa­nies talk about adopt­ing a lean meet­ing approach but stud­ies show that busi­ness meet­ings are get­ting longer and more frequent. 

Noth­ing beats a nice meet­ing purge, but you’ll want to keep the project kick­off meet­ing free from the chop­ping block. Try­ing to lead a team through a project with­out a kick­off meet­ing is like plan­ning a group vaca­tion to no place in par­tic­u­lar with no itin­er­ary in mind — with­out any plans in place, good luck know­ing what to pack or where to meet. You’d all prob­a­bly end up in five dif­fer­ent places with no under­wear packed.

What’s a kickoff meeting?

A kickoff meeting (or project launch meeting) is a half to full-day affair with the project lead, core project team, clients or executives, and any related stakeholders who will impact or be impacted by the project’s direction. It’s a vital part of the discovery stage of the Digital Project Life Cycle.

The kickoff meeting helps you sort out processes, expectations, responsibilities, project context, and goals. Longer kickoffs will include in-depth looks at project or product requirements gathering.

A kickoff meeting will:

  • Set team and client expectations
  • Determine how everyone on your team will work together
  • Establish a schedule of when check-ins will happen
  • Establish common goals
  • Set how often you’ll communicate and how often you’ll meet
  • Clear ambiguity surrounding the project and offer an opportunity to ask questions
  • Get the team excited about the project ahead

Kickoff meetings are designed to be collaborative and should have the biggest turn-out of all the meetings you’ll host for a project. Make sure that everyone gets a chance to add their piece. Your goal should be to involve your team and related stakeholders—not just inform them.

Surprise! A kickoff meeting will not:

  • Set project scope (including cost and deliverables)
  • Build rapport with a client (a kickoff can continue rapport but shouldn’t establish it)
  • Present project changes
  • Go over tiny project details
  • Provide a brainstorming session (unless a project is super small, you’re not trying to set the scope here)

How to plan a kickoff meeting

A great kickoff depends on great planning. When in doubt, lean on general meeting best practices—you’ve got this.

Prerequisites:

  • Stakeholder assets (e.g., logos, content)
  • Pre-kickoff with client/stakeholder
  • Internal kickoff with project team
  • Clarity on who will attend and roles
  • Initial stakeholder research or interviews
  • Booked meeting room
  • Kickoff materials and equipment
  • Questions for kickoff

What should be on the kickoff meeting agenda?

General

  • Introductions and roles
  • Process and approach
  • Communication plan (tools, expectations, and availability)

Project details

  • Stakeholder/audience summary and goals
  • Project and business goals and anticipated outcomes
  • Project background and context
    • Project management lifecycle and approach (phases on the project, common project issues, ways to ensure healthy progress, feedback, and approvals)
    • Brand positioning
    • Technical specifications
    • Audience
    • Functionality needs
    • Content needs
    • Constraints
  • Scope clarification (if not doing a discovery or for small projects)
    • Changes and requests process
    • High-level schedule
  • Risks and mitigation strategy (plan your fire route)
  • Next steps
    • Project management tool invites
    • Research follow up
    • Kickoff notes to be posted (within a week)

Tip: if you’re scheduling more than a half-day for kickoff, use it as a chance to do some product definition with your stakeholders. A user experience (UX) or discovery workshop lets you test assumptions and build out the scope of the project together after you meet and set your goals

What should you bring?

  • Questions about project, functionality, stakeholders, and goals
  • Your team. Don’t forget them.
  • Sticky notes
  • Markers
  • Snacks
  • Things for people to squeeze or stretch (like stress balls or squishy toys)
  • Extra shirt and underwear for post-kickoff sweat stain relief

Who should be there?

All core project stakeholders: anyone who will be approving, contributing to,or signing off on the project. You have the right to limit the number of stakeholders and lower the risk of ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’ by asking your point of contact to create buy-in and a system for stakeholder approval (informed vs consulted folks on projects).

  • Project lead and core team (or team leads at very least)
  • Client (or external stakeholder) point of contact
  • Client or stakeholder decision-makers

What’s your role as project lead?

  • Present and facilitate the meeting
  • Assign a note-taker and/or record the meeting
  • Book and test the meeting equipment
  • Introduce stakeholders
  • Clarify questions and goals
  • Introduce workshop activities and clarify steps
  • Support clarification around notes taken
  • Describe clear next steps
  • Transcribe and review meeting notes
  • Send to stakeholders for review or comment

When should you schedule a kickoff meeting?

  • After your pre-kickoff (where the project lead connects directly with the point of contact on the client/external stakeholder side to prep for the kickoff)
  • After the Statement of Work has been finalized and the agreement has been signed (in some cases this will be months after contract signing and/or downpayment

On top of the pre-kick-off, it’s a good idea to have an internal kickoff with your team before you host the official kickoff meeting. This gives everyone on your team a chance to familiarize themselves with the client and project and to ask any questions or gain clarity in a client-free zone. Internal kickoffs also help you iron out project decisions ahead of time and specify how work will be performed (might be time to break out a RACI chart).

Where should you hold a kickoff meeting?

  • When possible do an onsite meeting to reduce the risk of stakeholder misalignment
  • Otherwise, choose a flexible online medium with the option of whiteboarding (consider an interactive tool for this like Mural or Figjam)
  • Big, comfy boardroom with a whiteboard and access to AV equipment OR remote-first connection on video chat

Helpful tips

  • If you’re the project lead, have someone else take notes (or transcribe the session with a service like Rev). Facilitating and writing are two different cognitive tasks. You can’t do both well at the same time and you need to lead the meeting and not forget what was said
  • Budget for travel and accommodation for your team if traveling (consider charging half rate for travel time)
  • Have a backup plan just in case (internet breaks, people no-show, rooms get double booked)
  • Talk about the blue sky ideas that get people really excited: give folks a chance to dream
  • Then give everyone permission to talk about the ‘stinky fish’ and air their fears, worries, concerns to build team trust
    • What to do
    • Payment schedule
    • What things could go wrong, how you’ll deal with them
  • The more input your stakeholders have early on, the lower the chance that scope creep and misalignment will derail your project; treat them as an extension of your team as much as possible
  • If you have many stakeholders consider using the fishbowl conversation to guide input
  • Check out this project lifecycle questions list for some helpful questions to ask during kickoff

Post kickoff questions

Here are some handy questions to discuss during your post-kickoff meeting:

  • How are you currently feeling about the project itself (out of 5)? Why? What impacted your score the most?
  • How did the kickoff go overall—did we get all the information that we needed?
  • What risks came up during the project kickoff that we should talk about?
  • What opportunities are there for us or for our client/executives during this project?
  • What gaps in our knowledge do we still need to research?
  • What are our biggest weaknesses/strengths moving forward on this project?
  • What will our likely barriers be? How will we overcome those?
  • What are our very next steps?
  • Who will be actioning which tasks? (Get folks to restate their own tasks)

Remember, the kickoff is only the beginning of the discovery phase. You’ll want to arrange more sessions to work through research with your stakeholders and to clarify assumptions so you can start to define the project. A kickoff meeting will set the tone of a project—so it’s worth it to put the time in to make it extra great.

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