Kicking off a new project can be a fascinating and exciting experience. It can likewise be a nightmare. The distinction between the two is often determined by just a little proper planning and thought in advance of the initial customer contact and kickoff preparation process. The kickoff procedure is never basic and simple – it does require a considerable amount of planning and effort. However, a project that is kicked off well will appropriately set customer expectations, potentially even senior management expectations, and get the critical project planning process that happens next off to the best start possible. All of these are key ingredients of success on any project.
There is no “obligatory” process to go through when planning and preparing for the project kickoff. And most what needs to happen is fairly logical. For me, I’ve come up with a list of five areas and concepts to cover when I’m getting ready to kickoff a project. Some have just come through learning the hard way as you’ll see when you read the info presented below. Please review my process and feel free to comment with what has worked (and not worked) for you as you prepare to kickoff a crucial project for one of your customers…
Most of what needs to happen is truly sensible at this point. For me, I've devised a rundown of five phases and ideas to cover when I'm getting prepared to kickoff a project. It would be great if you review my methods and comment with what has met expectations (and not lived up to expectations) for you as you plan to kickoff an eCommerce/web project for one of your clients.
The Handoff to PM
The first step in the process is the handoff. In most organizations, the PM has no role in the actual sales process (however I have the pleasure of at least being invited to most of the initial meetings and on-sites) of the potential project with the client…or the project inception process. That is unfortunate, because the PM has much he can bring to the table in terms of delivery organization capabilities, PM concepts and practices, a solid understanding of what it’s going to usually take to get the project done, what type of information is needed from the customer, and a good idea of levels of effort and costs of any given activity or set of tasks. Early PM involvement can help properly set expectations all around, provide the customer with a more accurate price and timeline from the start, and likely get the project kicked off faster. But I digress.
In most organizations, this will not be the case, so the next best thing is to get a great handoff from sales to the PM. That involves a complete knowledge dump because the account manager who “sold” the project knows how he came to the price and timeframe that was committed to, and he knows customer wants, needs and quirks that will help the PM best serve that customer. Those things must transfer to the PM in extremely granularity. Having a clear picture of the project will lead to expectations being managed and people ultimately being happy.
Preparation For The Kickoff
Next, begin preparation for the formal kickoff session. First that should involve an introduction of the PM to the project client and a determination of when and where the project kickoff will take place. This usually happens on customer soil so as to set the “service” tone of the overall project engagement. It may end up being one of the few times the PM and team (if they are assigned at this point) are onsite with the project customer so you’ll want to take advantage of this and familiarize yourself with their location – especially if it has any bearing on the technical or business solution that will be rolled out at the end of the project. Preparation for this critical session needs to include a presentation deck and proposed agenda that is delivered to the customer in advance of the session for general approval (no surprises…or at least avoid them as much as you can just as you would during the project). If you don't have the availability to meet with your client you definitely want to do a webcam sharing meeting so they can see your face(s) and your emotions. GoToMeeting and Skype both serve this purpose well.
Who Should Attend Kickoff?
This may not seem that important beyond the project sponsor or true project leader on the customer side, some key stakeholders on either side, and the PM. Oh but it is. I’ve kicked off projects where the customer decided to have nearly 30 potential end users attend. Mistake. Why? Because as you begin to have any type of design discussions during the kickoff session – and it will come up – these 30 people each have a mind of their own and need based on their job and it can easily turn a 3 hour kickoff session into a two day meeting if not managed well. That’s what happened to me on one large kickoff effort so I’ve learned to discuss that in advance with my project customer so we can stay on track during the actual kickoff session. Always, always, always have an agenda. You could use it as a heat shield. When things get off track you can refer back to "I think we are getting a little granular at this point, let's head back to the agenda to make sure we are addressing all of the talking points". Works every time.
What To Cover?
There are a large number of potential topics for the formal project kickoff – depending on the project size, genre, technology, etc. However, there are a few very common things that should be covered and discussed in every project kickoff session – whether it’s for a $50,000 project or a $5 million project. At a minimum, I believe the project statement of work (with the "major goal and battle cry") should be discussed in detail (if it hasn't already; which would be a mistake), all milestones and deliverables as well as those proposed dates, the role of the project team members, how any training and testing will be handled, the change order process for the project, how the project will be managed overall including communication and the general project methodology, and what the next steps are and when they will happen. It makes sense to cover these things at a high level so people "understand" what their roles will be, but don't get bogged down in the finer details, those can be addressed in a meeting that doesn't have 12 people in it and is costing both companies a $1000. Which leads us to…
As the kickoff session is nearing an end, the next steps need to be discussed. For an IT project, that’s usually requirements definition and other project planning, design discussions, and then the actual build/development of the solution (pardon the 10,000 foot view of that process). A decision on where and when these things are going to happen needs to be discussed and there is definitely no better time to do that than when you have all of these key players in the same room at the same time. That isn't by any means a 'negative' thing, by having everyone in the room you can hold each other accountable as you move through the project as well because ultimately you all want the same thing; a project on budget, delivering value, and on timeline. Even for remote projects, the big planning sessions that need to happen next should probably be done face to face and should happen onsite at the customer facility if at all possible. You need to discuss business processes (“as is” and “to be”). Quick and easy access to potential end users during this phase will help speed up the process as well as provide the delivery team with better, more complete and detailed requirements and result in a more accurate and usable solution rolled out to the customer…and less re-work at the end of the project to fix what isn’t what those critical end users REALLY want and need.
If you are in the project management space you know that a plan is only as good as the people on the project and their ability to stick to it. So remember to roll with the punches and always redefine roles and expectations. This isn't a one time thing, you need to at least refer back to this information two times throughout the project. A great kickoff will never ensure project success because so many things go into the potential success on any given project – and many of things will be outside of your control, but a project that starts well has a better chance of running smoothly and ending well. Can we all agree?
Now, I have talked about a few points but I want to hear from you.
What has worked for you when you are preparing to kickoff a new project? What hasn’t worked? What have you learned the hard way along the way?
The bottom line for me has been to properly set customer expectations and facilitate the processes to meet their expectations. If you can't do it, don't say you can (business rule #1; your word and reputation is all you have in business). It is better to over deliver than to over promise. This helps get the project off to a smooth start and avoids landing the project delivery team – my team – behind the 8 ball with the client from the outset. It’s hard to recover from a dissatisfied customer right out of the gate.