13 Steps to plan and execute the project kickoff meeting

Got a new project in the pipeline? Well, a project kickoff meeting will help set the stage for success. This is the first gathering of key stakeholders, including the project team and sometimes even the client. In it, you hash out the details of what’s to come, define your goals, and seek a shared vision of what you’ll achieve.

Think of it like a farmer preparing the soil before planting her crops. Sure, she could forgo that process and just start putting seeds in the ground. But without creating an environment for them to thrive in first, the future harvest is unlikely to make ends meet. Your projects are like those seeds. And well-organized kickoff meetings should ensure they have everything they need to flourish. In today’s post, we’re revealing 13 essential steps and suggestions to help you execute them properly.

What are the benefits involved?

Meeting with team members and key stakeholders before the project gets underway has several major benefits. For starters, it facilitates communication and ensures everyone is on the page from the beginning.

By contrast, skipping kickoff meetings can lead to misaligned expectations on how the project will proceed. That can lead to many problems, with scope creep (i.e., making unplanned changes to a project’s scope, which can delay progress) at one end of the spectrum and total failure at the other. 

Gathering for a project kickoff also helps everyone get to know each other, which boosts morale. You enter as individuals with your own ideas on how the project will proceed but leave as a team with a unified vision. It’s also an excellent opportunity to assess potential risks (more on this later), discuss the project timeline, and cover key details, such as where and how often you’ll share status updates.

Ultimately, kickoff meetings ensure your upcoming projects proceed smoothly and deliver the result(s) that you and/or the client expect.

How to plan effective kickoff meetings: 5 Key steps

Now we know what project kickoffs are and why they’re important, let’s talk about how to successfully plan them. Here are 5 preliminary steps to follow whenever you’re in charge of the meeting:

1. Set a date, time, and venue

Start with the logistical details. You’ll need to iron these out first so you can include them on the invitations. Ask yourself the following questions:

In terms of location, most remote teams will hold their kickoff meetings online. If you take that tack, make sure you inform everyone what tool you’ll be using (e.g., Zoom) and how they can access the session when it happens. It also makes sense to experiment with the tool first so you’re confident using it on the day.

2. Decide the guest list

The next step is to figure out and finalize who needs to attend the meeting itself. Ultimately, this hinges on the type of project kickoff you’re organizing. We go through the four main types at the end of this article, so be sure to check that out if you’re unsure.

With that knowledge in mind, you should be able to compile an invite list for all the relevant stakeholders. Top tip: Double-check who you’re inviting before you send the invites. The last thing you want is for the big day to arrive only to realize a key team member isn’t present. For similar reasons, you should schedule the meeting in your calendar and check everyone else has done the same.

3. Ask someone to take notes

Taking notes throughout the meeting serves a dual purpose. First, you end up with a useful record of the discussion that stops you from forgetting key details, talking points, and/or action steps. Second, you can send them to stakeholders/team members who can’t attend and thus bring them up to speed.

Avoid taking notes while facilitating the meeting, though. It’s best to delegate the role to another attendee beforehand so you can focus on leading the session. Oh, and if you’re meeting virtually, why not record it as well? You can then distribute the footage to everyone afterward so they can a) catch up if they can’t attend and/or b) refresh their memory if they forget something.

4. Set your agenda

A meeting without an agenda is like a navigator without a compass. You risk getting off-track, wasting time, and failing to achieve what you need to. In other words, setting one (and then sticking to it religiously in the meeting) is crucial!

The session shouldn’t drag on for too long, which means your agenda should be similarly streamlined. As for its structure, aim to include all of the main topics/talking points and allocate each item sufficient time. Precisely what you include will depend on the project. But a good starting point is to address the “who,” “what,” and “why” in the following order:

  1. What: Is the project’s background?
  2. Why: Are you doing the project? (Or what’s the goal?)
  3. What: Is the scope of the project?
  4. What: Is the action plan you’ve put in place?
  5. Who: In the team will be doing what?
  6. What: methods and tools will you use to collaborate effectively?
  7. What: will the finished product look like?

Those seven questions would represent the bulk of your project kickoff meeting. However, you’ll also need an introduction at the start and time set aside for questions at the end. More on this next.

5. Share important documents

Once you’ve finalized the agenda, you should share it with everyone (along with any other relevant materials) well in advance of the meeting. This will give attendees an opportunity to review key documents, such as the project timeline, and consider questions/talking points they wish to raise on the day.

On that note, put some thought into anything you think people might ask. You can then formulate potential answers and find the info they may need beforehand.

8 Components of successful project kickoff meetings

Now you know how to plan your kickoff meeting, let’s talk about the various topics and talking points worth covering in it. Keep in mind that – just like your projects – every meeting is different, which impacts what you discuss. Nevertheless, here are a few things we recommend you include:

1. Introductions

Most successful kickoff meetings begin with introductions – especially when attendees are less familiar with each other. Go around the circle and let people introduce themselves to the group. It doesn’t have to take long! Simply encourage a quick overview of who they are and what their role will be in the project (unless this is something still to be decided, but more on this soon).

If you really want to get things off to a good start, consider asking some check-in questions and/or playing some ice-breaker games.

2. Project overview

With the introductions over, you can move on to what’s arguably the most important part of your project kickoff meeting: an overview of everything from the statement of work and the project’s scope to its timeline and deliverables. In case you need a refresher, he’s a very quick rundown of what each term means:

These four elements are all valuable things to cover. However, alongside them, it’s also worth talking about the project’s purpose. You really want to align on what you’re working towards and why it matters. This should help the team appreciate how their work contributes to the company’s overarching goals. In turn, people should better understand the work they need to prioritize.

3. Establish roles and responsibilities

This aspect of a kickoff meeting may not be necessary for internal projects, where everyone on the team already has a specific role. Yet it’s a valuable inclusion whenever that isn’t the case – if the project team’s never worked together, for example, or when you’ve brought in an external partner to help out.

The goal is to ensure people know who’s doing what throughout the project. From the main point of contact to the approver(s), sponsors, and/or executive leaders, everyone should be crystal clear on each other’s roles and responsibilities. If that isn’t the case during the kickoff meeting, then consider creating a RACI chart afterward to share with the team.

Also known as a responsibility assignment matrix, these simple diagrams are designed to map task roles and responsibilities. RACI stands for Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed. The idea is to take each task or deliverable and assign one of those roles to someone on the team. For example, let’s say your first job is to design the site map. In that section of your RACI chart, you could put the following:

4. Monitoring and communicating progress

It’s also important to consider how and when you’ll update the client and key stakeholders on the project’s milestones. One option is to issue regular status reports containing updates on things like the budget, work completed, milestones, and the timeline. Just make sure the client greenlights the amount of detail each report will contain. It’ll make their life easier when processing invoices and payments.

On a similar note, it’s vital that you distribute these status reports to anyone with “skin in the game,” as it were. Everyone involved must be aware of how the project’s tracking. If they aren’t, problems can ensue in terms of time management and resource allocation. When the whole team’s up to speed with progress and/or setbacks, you’re less likely to encounter hiccups along the way.

5. Deciding tools and processes

There’s no shortage of potential tools you might need to complete projects and communicate effectively throughout them. In your kickoff meeting, then, take the time to decide which ones you’ll use to:

We could write an entire article about what’s available in each of those four categories. Very briefly, though, something simple like Google Docs or Dropbox could suffice for file sharing. Basecamp and Asana are two popular collaborative tools/work management systems that can help you track tasks in progress. And Slack is a top communication platform. As you’d expect for the client work, the tools you pick will depend entirely on the industry and work you’ll be doing.

6. Addressing risks

No matter how well you plan, all projects run into setbacks and obstacles. The trick to stopping them from disrupting your progress is to a) think about the most likely issues that could arise and b) decide how you’ll respond.

This isn’t a one-time thing, though. While it’s important to discuss in the project kickoff meeting how you’ll spot and respond to problems, effective risk management is an ongoing process. You and the team must be constantly looking for, analyzing, and mitigating risks that could cost the project valuable time and money.

7. Question time and next steps summary

End your project kickoff meeting by giving everyone a chance to ask questions. Remember, the goal is to make sure you’re all in alignment on what’s to come; anything left unresolved could cause issues later on. As an aside, you should also keep this in mind when setting the agenda. Don’t forget to include a timeslot for questions at the end!

When questions are over, it’s time to outline the next steps. Provide a brief overview of what you’ve discussed, including a reminder of any action items you’ve put down (e.g., create a RACI chart) and what the team’s going to do first. At this point, it’s also worth clarifying where the work’s going to be documented and how often/where you’ll share project status updates.

8. Post-meeting tasks

Your job’s not quite done! When the meeting’s over, there are a few final tasks we recommend doing ASAP:

Different types of kickoff meetings

Despite sharing many of the same elements, not all project kickoff meetings are made equal. Understanding the different types will help you decide how formal they need to be. Here’s a quick overview of the main ones:

1. Internal project kickoff

This is the most rudimentary type of kickoff meeting. It’s generally informal and unpolished – a simple gathering of the project team to seek alignment and ask questions before the real work begins.

2. Executive sponsor project kickoff

As the name suggests, this kickoff meeting is for projects that have executive sponsors. It’s a higher-level gathering of the exec team, which tends to focus on the project’s purpose and objectives. Importantly, it shouldn’t necessarily replace the internal kickoff; it’s sensible to do both.

3. External/client-facing project kickoff

Designed for client-facing projects, the project team and important stakeholders on the client’s side meet to seek agreement on the project’s goals and deliverables. This type of kickoff tends to be more formal and polished.

4. Agile project kickoff

If you’re in an Agile team, your projects probably run in sprints of two or four-week cycles. It’d be impractical to do a kickoff meeting for each sprint, but they’re definitely worth doing once or twice a year. The point is to check everyone’s still aligned and has everything they need for a sprint. It’s also an opportunity to introduce the team to new members and get them up to speed on the project.

Organize your offsite project kickoff with Surf Office

These tips should help you organize a successful project kickoff meeting for your team – wherever you decide to do it. But why not arrange to meet offsite? 

Remote and distributed companies have no choice but to hold kickoffs offsite. But companies with a traditional working arrangement should also consider it. Indeed, offsite meetings have many advantages, from providing a change of scenery that’s conducive to creativity to taking people away from the distractions of their daily tasks. The end result is a more engaged and productive session.

Surf Office can help you leverage these offsite advantages without the hassle of organizing the meeting. Tell us what you need, and we’ll handle the rest, saving you time and money in the process! To learn more or get the ball rolling, click here.

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