By Natalie Berkiw-Scenna, PMP
What could be more exciting than engaging in a brand-new project? As a project manager, I’ve found over the years that I thrive on the pure anticipation of what’s to come, and I immediately begin to think about setting this initiative up for success.
With each new project, we are presented with an ideal opportunity to truly kickstart the planning, gain strategic or operational alignment, and communicate a common message to all our key stakeholders. With a well-designed and organized kick-off meeting, we can accomplish all these important goals, and gain that necessary momentum to set us on the right path.
Together, let’s explore some fundamental considerations when you’re launching your next project.
First, let’s start with some level-setting and ask the question: What is a kick-off meeting? This initial, introductory session provides the perfect occasion to bring everyone together that have some level of interest (or “stake”) in the development or outcome of a new project. This first meeting is a powerful way to gain interest and curiosity, communicate key information and messaging, and engage our stakeholders in dialogue to define our next steps. We are essentially announcing that this important work is kicking off and informing others how they can support the overall success of the new project.
There are several important considerations when you’re looking to plan your next kick-off meeting. These can include seven key elements:
- Defining your meeting purpose
- Setting clear objectives and expected outcomes
- Identifying your meeting participants
- Finalizing your meeting logistics
- Defining your key messages
- Developing a well-structured kick-off meeting agenda
- Preparing your participants for the discussion
- Define Your Meeting Purpose
While the purpose may initially seem clear (you are bringing people together to launch your new project), I invite you to think further about why you want to engage this group of key stakeholders during this valuable time together. Will you use this meeting as a platform for information-sharing only? Or can you build in an element of planning, brainstorming, and decision-making? Consider how you can best leverage this opportunity and collect as many perspectives as possible into the necessary tasks and activities, key metrics, and team membership, etc.
- Set Clear Objectives and Expected Outcomes
The objectives and expected outcomes determine what you want to achieve during your kick-off meeting and allows you to clearly define what success looks like. This develops your baseline to measure against later to see if your expected outcomes became your actual outcomes. Think about what you’re looking to accomplish in this initial session. If one of your objectives is to identify all the members of your project team and steering committee during the meeting, and you leave the discussion with a complete list of participants, then you were successful in achieving that outcome. By defining your goals in advance, this will help you define key elements to build into your kick-off meeting agenda.
- Identify Your Meeting Participants
Inviting the right participants is essential to the success of your kick-off meeting. Consider being as inclusive as you can at this point and invite key stakeholders from all levels. This allows everyone to hear the same consistent messaging at the onset of this work and provides an opportunity for your project champion or sponsor to say a few words to motivate and energize the team for the work ahead. When you’re developing your kick-off meeting invite list, consider everyone that is knowledgeable about the subject matter, who might benefit from hearing the discussion, who has authority for key decisions that need to be made, who brings a historical perspective of previous conversations, who might be influential from a change management perspective, and finally, who might be directly impacted by the project outcomes.
- Finalize Your Meeting Logistics
Planning your kick-off meeting well enough in advance provides you with flexibility when designing your meeting logistics. Now that you have a full list of ideal meeting participants, you can start exploring an ideal date, time, and location (whether in-person or virtual) that allows you to gain the greatest engagement. Remember when we touched on defining the meeting purpose? Let’s consider this again when we think about the length of the kick-off meeting. If your intent is to have a meeting that is purely informational in nature, a shorter time frame is acceptable as long as you leave plenty of time to provide clarity, engage in discussion, and answer questions. As additional elements of planning, brainstorming, and decision-making are added, the time required will also expand. Another important consideration is to provide enough time for introductions. New projects often bring forward new names, faces, and opportunities for relationship-building. Build in enough time to incorporate these elements to ensure a successful kick-off.
- Define Your Key Messages
Once your meeting participants are identified and meeting logistics are in place, you can now define the key messages for this broader audience. This is the time to think about what information you can share about the new project at this time. When pulling this information together, I always return to the basics of communication including who, what, where, when, why, and how. Consider answering these basic questions to start developing your targeted messaging and key takeaways.
- Who – Who will be impacted by this new project? Who needs to be involved? Who are the key decision-makers? Who will be involved in the project planning?
- What – What is this project about? What information can you share? What information is not yet known that the project team will need to determine? What do you need from each of these key stakeholders?
- Where – Where will this new initiative be implemented? Where might we see the impacts of the project outcomes?
- When – When do you expect planning to start? When will the project team and steering committee meetings be booked? When might the project go-live?
- Why – Why is this work important? Why are the meeting participants critical to the success of this new project?
- How – How will you get this started? How will people be engaged going forward? How will your meeting participants hear about progress?
- Develop a Well-Structured Kick-Off Meeting Agenda
By now, you’ve identified your meeting purpose, objectives and expected outcomes, meeting participants, logistics, and required key messages related to your new project. You are well-prepared to develop an agenda that sets you up for success. Your kick-off meeting agenda is your roadmap as it maximizes the use of everyone’s time and helps the discussion arrive at your expected outcomes. The content and sequencing of the agenda items is essential, and you should build in elements from the considerations above, and incorporate welcoming remarks and introductions, overall context-setting and details around the new project, time for discussion and questions, and expected next steps. Consider adding times to each agenda item to support keeping the meeting on track and build in more time for activities such as brainstorming and planning discussions.
- Prepare Your Participants for the Discussion
Consider setting expectations for the meeting in advance by circulating a pre-meeting communication. Inform your participants by sending an email with any context-setting, the agenda, any documents they should review beforehand, and set any clear expectations regarding their attendance. You can also include any other expectations you have around how they should prepare for the discussion. Take advantage of a second opportunity once the meeting begins to request their active engagement along with any other expectations that you select.
I encourage you to implement these key considerations and leverage the incredible opportunity of a well-designed and organized kick-off meeting. The time and effort will be worthwhile as you start your project teams on the right path to success.
Want to learn more? Consider applying the hundreds of meeting best practices to all your projects. There are many actionable steps that you can do to consistently lead high-functioning, effective meetings. Grab a copy of the book, Unleash Your Meeting Potential™, and learn how to lead engaging, productive meetings to move all your initiatives forward successfully. You can find this resource at www.NatalieScenna.com/learn or through your favorite book retailer worldwide.
Natalie Berkiw-Scenna, PMP
Consultant and Trainer, International Institute for Learning
With well over 20 exciting years of project management experience, Natalie Berkiw-Scenna brings her passion and guidance to support other project managers to grow their careers through mentorship, coaching and education.
She brings her wealth of knowledge and expertise from her PMP and Lean designations, and years of leading complex, strategic projects. Her book, Unleash Your Meeting Potential™, can be found in retailers around the world. She also launched this material as an online course after teaching this valuable content to several MBA programs and at various educational events and symposiums including IIL’s 2021 International Project Management Day.
Natalie has international project experience in both Canada and the United States, and has worked primarily in the health care and non-profit sectors. She currently provides her expertise to Beaumont Health in Michigan. And in her spare time, she focuses on training and coaching others to build their confidence and credibility to take their careers to the next level.
Disclaimer: The ideas, views, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Institute for Learning or any entities they represent.