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Project kickoff is one of the most important stages in the lifecycle of a project. Learn how to excel at this stage in this article.
Well begun, they say, is half done.
Nowhere is this more applicable than at the start of a project. How you start often sets the tone for how the rest of the project unfolds.
Kickoff, thus, is a critical time in the life of a project. The robustness of your processes, the transparency of your communication - it will all be tested at project kickoff.
More significantly, kickoff marks the moment the project moves from concept to reality. Whatever sales promised now has to be realized by the project team. There is a handover of responsibilities which makes the project kickoff doubly important for project managers.
So how do you go about the project kickoff process? What steps can you do to start new projects right?
Read on to discover some answers.
Before Project Kickoff: Building the Foundation
The start of a project is a strange time. In many agencies, everything preceding kickoff falls under the domain of Sales. Sales figures out what clients want, sells them a vision, and gets them to write the initial check.
And then suddenly, the project becomes the project manager’s responsibility.
This demarcation of duties means that PMs often walk blind into the project. They are expected to deliver a vision within a timeline that they don’t even know is possible.
The result, as you can imagine, is mild chaos, if not outright disaster.
For smoother operations, I propose that this sharp division should end. Project managers shouldn’t just be called on once Sales has a signature on the dotted line.
Rather, PMs should act as engagement managers. They should be involved in all stages of the project conceptualization. This includes everything from negotiations about deliverables and deadlines to overall project vision.
After all, who else would have a better idea of the project’s viability than the person tasked with running it - the project manager.
What Clients Really Want
It’s a rare client who knows exactly what they want. They might have a general idea, but if you were to ask them about the specifics, they’d have no clue.
Sales, for all their good intentions, don’t truly understand project requirements. They have one priority - close the deal. They often agree to the client’s vision without fully understanding what it takes to deliver it.
This is why it is crucial to bring in you, the project manager, into the sales process. With your experience, you can help knead the client’s vision-flour into ready-to-bake project-dough.
There are three areas where you can help the client (and your agency) understand what they truly want:
1. True vs perceived problems
Clients frequently don’t understand the scope of their issues. Lacking expertise, they often misdiagnose problems. Poor website engagement, for instance, can be ascribed to anything from content quality and site speed to UI/UX issues.
It is your job as the PM to guide the client to the right problem (and its eventual solution).
2. Agency capability
Clients seldom know the range of your expertise. Unless the client has significant experience in working with agencies, they usually put every agency into the “marketing services” basket.
By jumping in early into the sales process, you can help the client understand your true capabilities as well as your track record of success.
The key is to ask the right questions upfront to gauge the client’s understanding of the project and its expected solution.
Some questions you can ask are:
- Why this problem? Why now? What changed in your business (new competitor, emerging trend, more funding) to prompt you to look for a solution?
- Have you talked to your marketing team, developers, etc. to get their buy-in on this project? Are they fully onboard with your envisioned solution?
- If you already have a solution in mind, what prompted you to choose it?
- Do you have a cost in mind? Is there an approved budget for this effort?
- How quickly do you need this project to be rolled out?
- Is the project replacing anything you are currently doing today?
Questions like these are crucial for understanding the project’s real requirements. Getting this right will be vital in setting the timelines, budgets, and resources for the project.
It is also crucial for project kickoff. Without knowing what the client wants (and guiding them in the right direction), you are liable to make judgment errors in your proposal and pricing. Further, being engaged early in the conceptualization stage will help you understand the client’s preferences better.
From an agency’s perspective, getting PMs involved early in the sales process can increase your revenue. Instead of the immediate, short-term solution, PMs can guide clients to choose the holistic solution that actually solves their core problems.
How to Truly Understand Client Requirements
There is always a gap between the client's requirements and what you understand to be the client's requirements. Telepathy isn't a thing after all; you can ask questions and communicate like a champ, but you can't get inside your client's heads.
Your job, however, is to keep the gap as minimal as possible. The better you understand the client, the better your proposed solution will be.
Here are some ways to do this:
1. Get the client to map out their current processes
Mapping out their own business processes is something that is very helpful for the client to do, but they’ll often overlook this activity unless you specifically require it.
It’s really a good idea to require that they go through this activity before you ever even sit down with them. If the client goes to their end users and subject matter experts (SMEs), and gets business processes mapped out with them, then there’s a real good chance that they’ll have the best possible view of their real need going into requirements definition on their own or with you.
2. Go through high-level requirements with the client
Ideally, the client would do this on their own. But what’s ideal and what the client actually does isn’t the same thing.
If you have to ‘help’ the client map out their high level requirements, at least you’ll have their business processes in place from the previous step to really help you understand their needs.
3. Document detailed requirements
Next, drill down with the client further into the requirements. It’s best at this time to also categorize and prioritize requirements. The key is to capture more requirements detail at this point to add to what you already have captured at a high level through the client discussions in the previous step.
It’s inevitable that there will be three general categories of requirements:
- Must-haves (the #1s)
- Should-haves (the #2s)
- Nice-to-haves (the #3s). P
Prioritizing now will help you later if and when scope or schedule changes affect the project and you have to get functionality up and running by a specific date leaving the rest for a later phase of the implementation.
Once you understand client requirements, you can move to the next step: project kickoff.
How to Excel at Project Kickoff
You, the project manager, might have been involved in project conceptualization during the sales process. But kickoff is the time when the handover from Sales/Accounts to the project team is finally complete.
Everything that happens from here on becomes your responsibility.
The stakes, as you can imagine, are pretty high.
There are two parts to a successful project kickoff - the kickoff meeting, and all the homework that precedes it.
I’ll cover both of these in the next section.
The Project Kickoff Checklist
A lot of things happen at project kickoff. You have to organize teams, define objectives, and get necessary approvals from different stakeholders.
Follow this checklist to keep the kickoff process organized:
1. Appoint a project manager
Given the importance of the project manager in the project’s success, your first step should be to define this role.
This might be you, another PM, or even a group of managers (not uncommon in large integrated agencies). What’s important is that you formally appoint the project manager and make it known to all stakeholders.
2. Define project objectives
Your project proposal will likely have a broad overview of the project’s vision. In the kickoff phase, it’s time to expand this vision into specific objectives. Ask:
What is the project trying to achieve? What does “success” look like for this project and client? What are some KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) that can be used to measure success? What kind of resources will it take to achieve success?
The project budget, timelines, and resource requirements all depend on the objectives. The more clarity you have on this front, the better your planning.
3. Get approval from all stakeholders
Just because the client has okayed a proposal doesn’t mean that you have an actual, viable project. You need formal approval from all stakeholders on both yours and the client’s side.
Getting approval is a process of negotiation. You will have to outline your budget and resource requirements. Some stakeholders will push back; be ready to justify your demands.
4. Define the scope of the project
What does the project include? And more specifically, what does it not include?
Answering these questions is the next step post-approval. Again, you’ll have to negotiate with clients (who will always demand more). Clearly defining what’s included (and what’s not) can save you much grief later.
5. Identify major risks
Risk is inevitable in any project. Identifying major issues early can help you prepare for Plan B. You don’t have to do a detailed project risk assessment at this stage, but it helps to know what potential pitfalls you might encounter.
6. Establish deliverables
At the end of the day, a project is nothing but a list of deliverables to be completed. Establishing these right at project kickoff will guide the rest of your planning.
Specify the major tangible deliverables that will be created during the project as well as their tentative deadlines. You as well as the stakeholders will use these deadlines to evaluate project progress, so make sure to get it right.
7. Create your project team
The next step - assemble your team. This should include everyone involved in the project at the present moment such as:
- Project team members
- Internal and external stakeholders
- Outside contractors, vendors, and suppliers
Also, identify roles within the team. For instance, you might assign a project team leader who, in turn, would identify separate leaders for the development and design team.
Use the Driver-Approver-Contributor-Informed (DACI) matrix to assign team roles and responsibilities (Read more)
Additionally, you can outline the core responsibilities associated with each role. This isn’t necessary early in the project’s initiation but it can help make your team more accountable.
8. Create a communication plan
Few things can derail a project faster than faulty communication. A robust plan that covers every aspect of communication - preferences, frequency, stakeholders, etc. - can bring much-needed clarity to this vital task.
Read this article to understand how to create better communication plans.
9. Set up a project kickoff meeting
The final step to bringing it all together: setting up a project kickoff meeting.
Given the importance of this meeting, I’ll cover it in detail in the next section.
How to Run Better Project Kickoff Meetings
The project kickoff meeting forms the foundation of any agency-client relationship. This is where people on both sides get to meet each other, often for the first time. The camaraderie you establish here often sets the tone for the rest of the relationship.
The challenge is immense. You essentially have a bunch of strangers gathered in a room to discuss something that will be central to their lives for months on end. Your people and meeting management have to be top-notch.
So what does it take to run a successful project kickoff meeting?
Let’s find out.
1. Get everyone on the same page
At the start, usually only two people know the ins and outs of the project - you and the account manager. The rest of the team might have a faint idea, but they’ll likely be clueless about the minutiae of the project.
Step one, thus, is to brief your team about the project.
Gather the team (that you identified in step #7 earlier). Tell them about the project, the client, and your solution for it. Share their roles and responsibilities.
This isn’t a one-sided affair, of course. Encourage team members to ask questions. The more they learn, the better prepared they will be.
Your goal is to get everyone on the same page so that no one walks blind into the actual meeting.
2. Establish relationships, and an agenda
Project kickoff meetings have a tendency to meander. People often end up spending far too much time “getting to know each other” instead of focusing on the hard tasks of the meeting itself.
The solution is twofold:
- Establish relationships before the meeting by introducing all team members on both sides over email/chat. Encourage everyone to chat and learn about others’ roles. This will avoid the awkward dawdling that marks so many kickoff meetings.
- Set a clear agenda for the meeting. This should be a chronological list of issues you want to tackle and the time needed for each. Distribute this agenda to everyone well ahead of the meeting.
3. Create a “project FAQ”
A kickoff meeting is no place for basic questions about the project’s deadlines and deliverables. Such questions do nothing but derail the meeting’s agenda and waste time.
Fix this by creating and distributing a “project FAQ” to everyone on either side. This FAQ should include questions like:
- When will the project begin?
- What is the project deadline?
- What are the main deliverables? When can the client expect them?
- Who will do what on each team?
- Who are the main points of contact?
4. Be a good host
You’ll likely host the kickoff meeting in your office. This is great because it gives you a chance to truly impress the client.
Think about the client experience. What can you do to a) make the clients feel at home, and b) ensure that the meeting runs smoothly?
Here are some tactics:
- Have someone meet them in the reception/lobby
- Prepare the meeting space ahead of time. Stock it with everything you might need in the meeting - pens, notebooks, whiteboards, etc.
- Prepare gift bags or goodies for each member of the client’s team
- Create name cards if there are a lot of people
Treat clients as you would want to be treated as a guest. Put on a charm offensive. They trust your expertise; now make them like you as people as well.
Over to You
There is no real secret to running a successful project kickoff. As long as you understand what clients want, get everyone on the same page, and do your homework, your project will be off to a stellar start.
One way to run better projects is to invest in better project management software. Agency-focused ERP solutions like Workamajig can bring much-needed transparency and control to your project processes.
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