Six Keys to a Successful Project Kickoff

A successful project kickoff is far more than the sum of its parts. There are so many ways a kickoff workshop can fail, regardless of the set of activities you put together. If a workshop doesn’t connect with a client or isn’t successful in stimulating trust in your ability to deliver, you’ve failed. If you strengthen the client relationship but fail to gather requirements or deliver value through the workshop process, you’ve failed.

Leading a group of people through a workshop over a day (or days) is a tricky process. Over the years, I’ve noticed a few common themes that help contribute to a successful project kickoff.

1. Over-prepare

It doesn’t matter how many times I lead a project kickoff workshop, I’m always nervous. One key to overcoming anxiety or nerves is to prepare adequately. One of the first things I do in preparation is to go back over all communication and client-facilitated documentation having to do with the project at hand. I feel the need to be immersed in information about the project so that I have a deeper understanding of what needs should be addressed within the kickoff meeting.

Next I will pick out a series of activities and tools that I feel will confirm things we think we know and surface things we don’t. I will assign time frames to each of those activities, then organize them into an order that makes sense. Sometimes different activities feed into others, and a dependent order is necessary. Other times there are workshop attendees who can only be available for parts of days. Although this isn’t ideal, we try our best to accommodate this at Atomic by building an agenda that is modular and independent. The agenda is circulated, and the client has an opportunity to submit feedback or desired changes. Then the agenda is formalized into a schedule and circulated again.

Once this is done, I go back over every activity and revisit the source material for those activities. I walk myself through each activity and start to build an internal script for the day. I think about and note how will I introduce each activity and transition from one to the next. Finally, I think about how I will draw the workshop to a close by revisiting what we’ve discovered and making clear what the next steps the client can expect.

Preparation for a kickoff is half the job. The more prepared you are, the more you will be able to improvise as the workshop proceeds. Because you took time to prepare, you already have a good idea of the ground you need to cover and the data you are hoping to collect. When the unexpected happens, you’ll be able to change tact because you aren’t thinking about what comes next or how you are going to deliver value to your client.

2. Dress to Impress

On the day of the workshop, dress well. Personally, I try to be on the same level of formality with my clients or one step above. Obviously, if they show up in a suit and tie, I’m not going to wear a tux. But I will put on a suit and tie and look sharp. For me, it’s not a question of fashion or personal preference. It’s a display of respect for their corporate culture. It may not be my culture or what I would choose and they may be in our space at an AO location, but it’s a nice gesture of mutual respect to at least be on the same level of dress. Who knows? You might feel a little more confident in a nice shirt and tie.

3. Make the Workflow Obvious

Throw up a very simple Kanban chart of the day’s events. All you need are three columns with headers of “to do”, “doing” and “done”. A clear visualization of what is coming, what’s happening and what needs to be done helps people re-center on the task at hand. It also gives the group a sense of momentum and purpose as activities move over to the “done” column throughout the day.

4. Have Someone on Your Team Take Notes

There are two pitfalls that can scupper the usefulness of a kickoff workshop. First, you can fall into the hubris of thinking that you’ll remember the important points that come up. Guess what: you won’t. Don’t trust the success of the workshop to your memory. Someone must take detailed notes. The notes will be much, much better if it is someone on your team because they will be aware of what you need to get out of the workshop for it to be considered a success.

Second, don’t try taking notes yourself. You need to be completely focused on what’s going on in the room. If you can’t get a team member into the meeting, record the entire thing with your smartphone or with a digital recorder. If a client is sensitive to IP issues, you are most likely already under an NDA and therefore anything you record is too. I’ve never had recording be an issue.

I’ve discovered that taking notes in an online forum (such as Google Docs) and granting access to all workshop participants is a great way to insure accuracy and a multiplicity of viewpoints on what’s been said. It’s also great for remote stakeholders who aren’t able to make the workshop in person.

5. Visualize, Visualize, Visualize

As the leader of the workshop, you are going to be on your feet at a whiteboard for most of the day. Don’t fall into the trap of sitting in a chair talking and listening all day. Words can float away into the ether if we don’t capture them in some sort of visualization. A physical realization of what we’re talking about promotes comprehension, retention and gives us an opportunity to clarify statements leading to better communication.

6. Every Kickoff Should Have A Deliverable

A client just paid a lot of money to spend a day or two with you and your team. We know that the true output of that workshop is the knowledge you now have to be able to move forward together with the client to build their custom project. But a great way to show the client value is by generating a nice deliverable they can hold in their hands. It’s also a great way of communicating and validating the distillation and synthesis of insights and information gathered during the workshop. A deliverable really is just something that we, as consultant and client, can look at together and discuss. I have found it much easier to generate this deliverable soon after the workshop.

Prepare, customize, look good, communicate visually, respect the customer by taking detailed notes and give your clients a nice deliverable to spur further conversation. A great kickoff workshop could be the key to success in your next custom software project.