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Project Management

Should you lead or manage your project’s kick-off meeting?

During many of my Project Management workshops I ask the participants to plan a project kick-off meeting.  We talk briefly about the four requirements for an effective meeting:

  • a clear purpose
  • defined outputs
  • a timed agenda
  • agreed resources

Success_FailureThe kick-off meeting is the first time the Project Manager gets the team together in a room at the same time. The content and style of this meeting therefore sets the tone for the whole project. It sits in the ‘Forming stage’ of Tuckman’s Team Development Model (Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing) and, from a Leadership perspective, it should be highly task-focused, rather than relationship-focused.

So, what should the purpose be? Most workshop participants considering this exercise define the purpose as something like:

  • to introduce each other
  • to get oriented with the project
  • to establish roles and responsibilities

All of those are fine, but given my comment about this meeting setting the tone for the project, I think the purpose should actually be more about “passion”.  The purpose of the meeting is to inspire people and enthuse them about the project and how they can help it succeed.  If they leave the kick-off meeting thinking this project is “same old, same old” then an opportunity has been wasted and the project will probably follow the usual dull and uninspiring approach of so many others.  This key meeting requires Project Leadership rather than Project Management.

Given this purpose, it’s also worth remembering when the kick-off meeting should be held and who should be there.

I suspect that many kick-off meetings are held too soon.  They end up being “getting to know you” meetings and/or “what the hell is this project about?” rambling sessions.  They should only be held after the Project Sponsor and Project Manager have put sufficient time and effort into drafting a Project Definition Document that they can both explain the rationale for the project and set a clear direction.  So, in my opinion, the kick-off meeting should be held towards the end of the Definition stage of a project, at the point where the Sponsor and Manager are ready to engage the team in finalising the definition and beginning detailed planning.

This also raises the question of the roles of the Sponsor and Manager at this first team meeting.  What signals would it send to the team (and wider organisation) if the Sponsor chose not to attend that meeting.  It probably says “I’m too busy, or too important” and reinforces a perception that it’s “just another” project with an option to take it seriously, or not.  Frankly, if my Sponsor can’t find the time to come to the kick-off meeting, then I probably can’t find the time to project manage it and I would have serious concerns about his or her commitment to it.
I’m not suggesting the Sponsor should be there for the whole meeting, but demonstrating their leadership, setting the scene and setting expectations is an essential part of the Sponsor’s role.  Surely, 10-15 minutes of their time is not too much to ask.

Depending on the leadership style and personality of the Sponsor, the Project Manager may have to brief the Sponsor on what to say and what not to say.  I think there’s real value in the Sponsor sending out the invitations to the meeting, doing the introductions and then “formally” handing over to the PM to run the rest of the meeting. A few words like “I’m going to hand over to Bill/Mary (Project Manager) to facilitate the rest of this meeting. We will be meeting on a regular basis to check on progress and I will aim to attend some of your future meetings so we can ensure we’re on track to achieve our objectives”.

There are a few other things to consider which will help set the tone for the project:

Get the “voice of the customer” into the first meeting. Find ways to show how the results of the project are important for real people; what benefits do customers or users expect, what’s the problem they need solving or what’s the opportunity being addressed? It may not be appropriate to invite a customer to the first meeting, but you can present data and perceptions that explain the need. Video clips of customers talking about their issues, or their vision for the future can help bring the project to life.

Don’t bore people with “death by PowerPoint”, otherwise your project is going to look and feel like every other project the team has been involved in.  Think about other ways to share information (posters with quotes and data, videos, pictures etc.).

Make sure EVERYONE has at least one action to take after the meeting. It might be as simple as “review what we’ve covered today and come back with questions next time”, or “talk with your colleagues back at work about what we’re planning and get their ideas on how we can make this a success”.  If team members go away with nothing to do, it reinforces the perception that meetings are talking shops rather than a focus for action and moving the project forward.

Make sure the meeting starts on time, sticks to its agenda and finishes on time.  This also sets the expectations for how the project will run and that meetings are an important element in the overall productivity of the project.

Action Points should be summarised and agreed at the end of the meeting and circulated to all team members within 24 hours of the meeting.  If they have been recorded electronically during the meeting, there’s no reason why they can’t be issued within an hour of the meeting.  You might also consider whether it’s even necessary to “type up” the actions; if they have been written on a flipchart or whiteboard, it might be perfectly acceptable to take a picture of the board with a Smartphone and send the image file after the meeting.

In conclusion, when you’re planning your next project kick-off meeting, think about how you lead it, not how you manage it.

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