Managing the Project Kickoff Process
Kicking off a new project can be an interesting and rewarding experience. It can also be a nightmare. The difference between the two is often determined by just a little proper forethought and planning in advance of the initial customer contact and kickoff preparation process. The kickoff process is never simple and easy – it does require a fair amount of planning and effort. However, a project that is kicked off well will properly set customer expectations, possibly 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 “mandatory” 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…
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 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.
Preparation for the kickoff. Next, begin preparation for the formal kickoff session. First that should involve an introduction of the PM to the project customer 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).
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.
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 should be discussed in detail, 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. Which leads us to…
Next steps. 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 very high-level glossed over next steps). 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. 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.
A great kickoff will never ensure project success. 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 favorably.
Your turn… 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 try to do my best to properly set customer expectations. 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.
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