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Starting off on the Right Foot: A Project Manager’s Guide to Great Kickoff Meetings

By the time you’re ready to hold a project kickoff meeting to launch that new marketing campaign, customer service help desk, or employee wellness program, you’ve (hopefully!) done a lot of preparatory work with internal team members and/or clients. Now you have to bring together all the moving parts, make sure the team is on the same page, and shift the project into action in this all-important kickoff. How can you do this successfully? Keep reading to find out.

A Project Kickoff Meeting is for Alignment

A kickoff meeting marks the official launch of a project. In the kickoff, the project team comes to agreement on the project charter, which documents a project’s vision, goals, strategy, members, and key milestones. Some teams call a charter-type document by other terminology, e.g. scope of work or project plan. Regardless of what you call it, the charter establishes shared understanding that guides the team as they execute the project. Note that the project kickoff meeting is not the time to create the charter. It is generally the last step toward finalizing the charter in preparation for action.

So, what is the objective of the kickoff meeting? To align. Follow this checklist to reach alignment in your kickoff meetings.

Checklist for Planning a Successful Project Kickoff Meeting

1. Clarify the meeting’s desired outcomes.

What does success look like for you at the end of the kickoff meeting? Be specific and write down what you want to accomplish. Defining these desired outcomes will inform how you structure your agenda. Here are examples you might include:

  • Agreement on project vision and goals

  • Finalized charter document

  • Clear understanding of individual’s roles and responsibilities

  • Commitment from the stakeholders (project sponsor, member, etc.)

  • Identification of immediate next steps

  • Approval to go forward and invest resources

2. Invite key stakeholders.

Consider the key stakeholders for this project - who needs to be in the room in order to achieve your desired outcomes? Additionally, think about what role you would like each of them to play in the meeting. Do you want the project sponsor to demonstrate support? Do you want someone in another department to share a different perspective? Do you want clients to raise concerns? Make sure you communicate the expectations clearly in the meeting invitation or privately ahead of time so people know how to contribute.

3. Thoughtfully plan the agenda and share it in advance.

Send the agenda at least 24 hours prior to the meeting to help people prepare for the conversation. Depending on the team’s preparation, the size of your team, and the scope of your project, your kickoff meeting can range from 60-90 minutes. Here’s a sample kickoff meeting agenda curated in Meeteor software that identifies the meeting items and suggested time frames for each of them. Adjust it to fit your team’s needs.

4. Share prework and engage people before the meeting.

Prework helps both the meeting participants and leader prepare for the meeting conversation. What data, visual aids, or other information do you need to share with the team in addition to the charter to provide context for the discussion? To make prework actually work, don’t just attach the documents to the agenda, but ask meeting participants to do something with them. Include instructions like,

“Please critically review the material. Where do you agree? Where do you disagree? What can we improve? Please add your comments to this shared document for everyone to review prior to the kickoff.”

5. Establish norms for your meeting.

Norms establish ground rules and expectations for how the team will behave during the meeting. Here are some example norms you can use when walking through project documents.

  • Ask questions for clarification to avoid making assumptions. Encourage participants to challenge ideas and ask questions to deepen the discussion.

  • Aim for clarity and agreement, not perfection. Don't wordsmith the language in your project documents. The most important thing is to get the ideas right, not to get an “A” on your book report.

  • Everyone is responsible for “calling it” when the team has reached good enough to go (GETGO). It's easy to let conversation go longer than necessary. Empower participants to help move the conversation forward by asking, “Are we GETGO?” when they think the concept is right.

Four Things to Remember During your Kickoff Meeting

  1. Utilize meeting time for collaboration, not presentation. When you share the project materials in advance, participants can come prepared to contribute their thinking. Presenting materials in the meeting should serve as a tool to guide the conversation rather than a review of the same content. Use the meeting time to engage in deeper conversation with the team. Ask questions to help facilitate the conversation.

  2. Capture critical decisions and next steps. The team might feel energized when everyone is on the same page at the end of the meeting. Keep up the momentum by sharing the finalized charter, workplan and meeting notes with decisions and clear next steps within the next 24 hours.

  3. Table off-topic ideas as backburner items. There might be great ideas that you don’t have time to explore in the meeting or granular tasks that don’t need input from everyone in the room. Don't let tangents or details bog down the conversation. Acknowledge the topic is important by capturing it in the meeting notes as a backburner item to be revisited later.

  4. Celebrate small wins to build more positive momentum. Achieving alignment at your kickoff meeting is an important milestone and deserves a “Hooray!” Acknowledge everyone’s contributions and rally the team for the next phase of work.

What have you found to be successful or not successful in project kickoff meetings? What do you document in your project charter?

P.S. Want to know how Meeteor structures its project charters? Click here to download a template.

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