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How To Do An Expert-Certified Project Kickoff (& Ace It Every Time)

The project kickoff meeting is one of the most important parts of a project, and as a project manager, it should be one of your favorite things to do.

I love the project kickoff because it presents an opportunity for a project manager to problem solve. The brief is fresh, the slate is clean, and the opportunities are endless! Every new brief is an opportunity to deliver the best project ever.

Immediately I start envisioning all of the different ways we can tackle the problem at hand, and how to motivate the team to do it.

meme of woman looking around confused with math equations and formulas surrounding her
Me, thinking about all the possibilities of a new project.

I know not everyone feels this way and that’s OK (that’s why I’m the PM!), but I try to channel this excitement and zest for a fresh project into the facilitation of my kick off meeting. 

There are two primary types of kickoffs:

  1. A kickoff meeting that you use internally with your team to develop a project approach, timeline, and plan. 
  2. A kickoff meeting that you use to socialize the project plan and approach you’ve developed with your team to your customer or client.  

Both are important, and both can be scaled based on the nuances of your project—the task at hand, the level of trust between teams, the project scope, timeline, implications of the project, etc., but this article will primarily focus on the first use-case and on how to tactically execute a project kickoff that develops into a fulsome project plan.

In this article, I’ll cover:

What To Do Before The Project Kickoff Meeting?

The internal kickoff meeting serves a few different purposes:

  1. It sets and shares context for the brief or the problem to solve
  2. It’s a collaborative way for a cross-functional team to develop a project approach and project charter
  3. If executed well, it gets the project team excited about the work and optimistic about solving the problem at hand

Before you fire off a calendar invite to your team, there are a few things you should think about in advance to set yourself up for a successful project kickoff meeting:

  1. Review your brief and think through what you need to achieve in the project kickoff:
    1. Is it primarily to decide on an approach? Is it to develop a timeline? Is it to generate buy-in among the project team? All of the above? 
    2. The answers to these questions will help you determine how to run the meeting. For example, if the goal is to decide on an approach to a complex problem or project, you probably should include a mix of people in leadership alongside the “doers” who will get the day-to-day work done. 
    3. On the flipside, if you’re looking to develop a quick timeline, you probably only need the “doers” to participate and you can share key milestones with leadership after the meeting. 
    4. My preferred kickoff meeting framework is called the Graphic Gameplan, developed by a company called Grove Tools. It’s simple and flexible—you can apply it to any type of project in most industries. 
  2. Next, determine your attendees. As a default, I like to include everyone on the “day-to-day” project team, plus any executive project sponsors who may have more context into the project background, brief, or the task than the rest of the team. 
    1. “Day-to-day” means people who will touch the project 3-5/times a week, not people who have specialized skill sets that will be brought into the project only at key moments. There are more effective ways to engage those folks, and they don’t need to sit through an entire kickoff meeting.
  3. Once you have your attendees confirmed, set the date, time, and location for your meeting. 
  4. In advance, distribute the brief or any background material the project team needs to read before participating. Have you worked on a similar project before? Dig up your retro notes, or past performance reports and post-mortems and distribute those too. 
  5. Importantly, capture all of this information succinctly into one email and calendar invite with a clear project kickoff meeting agenda. Putting everything in one spot for the team to find as they prepare for the meeting is a simple but underrated way to make life a little bit easier for your teammates.

What To Do During The Project Kickoff Meeting?

Now that you’ve done the preparation it’s time to get to the meat of the project kickoff—the meeting. The most important thing for a project manager to keep in mind in this meeting is that their role is to facilitate the discussion: make sure everyone’s voice is heard while steering the conversation toward the questions they need answered in order to pull together a plan and timeline.

At all costs, you want to avoid dictating the project tasks and approach—that doesn’t build ownership and accountability for the project team, and it won’t get anyone excited about the work at hand.

This takes a bit of practice to hone, but the more you facilitate these meetings the better you’ll get. When stuck, channel your inner three-year-old and get super curious—keep asking what, why, and how in order to draw the detail you need out of your team. 

Your meeting may look different depending on how you’ve decided to structure and facilitate the session, but however it looks, you should always have a visual component. Whether that’s a Google Doc you jot your notes into as you share your screen, or chart paper if you’re in the office.

If you decide to use the Graphic Gameplan framework mentioned above, consider building a PowerPoint slide template of the graphic to fill out as you run the meeting. Are you meeting in person instead? I once had this graphic blown up and laminated so I could drag it to meetings, hang it on the wall, and fill it out with a dry erase marker. 

Regardless of how you structure your meeting, there are five core topics you’ll want to cover in any successful project kickoff meeting:

1. Alignment On The Primary Project Goal

What is the one thing this project absolutely needs to achieve? You may think this is obvious, but clients and project sponsors don't always do a great job of defining this clearly. If you’re lucky, the goal may be clear, but perhaps the full working team hasn't been included in all conversations and meetings to-date, so it's crucial to confirm at the outset if you're all on the same page. 

Don’t take for granted your position as the project manager—you’ll always have more context than most of the team, and it’s your job to disseminate that information appropriately. 

2. Any Secondary Objectives Or KPIs

Once you're aligned on the primary goal, it's time to list all of the secondary objectives and requirements that you need to meet. This could be a secondary KPI you want to affect, or a long term objective you want to contribute to, or it could even be something related to account management or operations. Perhaps the CMO of the organization is watching this project closely and we need to push the envelope and impress them. 

Maybe there's a requirement to support only diverse suppliers, or maybe a certain client likes to receive deliverables in a certain format (e.g. Powerpoint over Google). The list in this category can be long and wide-ranging, from high-level objectives to very tactical details, but these are the project details that when kept top of mind and managed appropriately set apart the great projects from the good ones. 

3. The Tasks And Phases Of The Project

Next in your meeting should be a discussion of the tasks and phases that we'll need to complete in order to meet the goals and objectives we've just defined. This topic should take up the bulk of time in your kick off meeting. 

BUT it's not just about listing the tasks you need to do to complete the work, it's also about considering what information we need in order to complete these tasks. 

  • Do any of them need to happen in a certain order? 
  • Does one need to be completed before we can start on the others? 
  • Which tasks can we work on at the same time? 

The answers to these questions are the foundation for setting up a solid project timeline. Don’t be afraid to ask clarifying questions here. If you don’t understand how something is going to get done, chances are the rest of the team is confused too.

4. Resources

Once we've determined everything we need to do to meet our goal, we need to figure out who's going to do the work, which means asking ourselves which resources and teams we need to engage for this to be successful. 

Think about the people you’ll need to engage internally, but also keep in mind your external partners as well. And when thinking about resourcing you shouldn't just think about who will need to be involved (important), but also what information will they need and when? 

This is your opportunity to put yourself in the shoes of others in order to be the best partner that you can be. Even if you don't have a full brief for all of your partners yet, it's better to give them context now than surprise them with a tight deadline later: “Hey person, FYI we have been briefed to solve X problem. We’re working through the details right now, but I suspect we’ll need to engage your team in a few weeks. Here’s the background I have currently, let’s regroup in a couple of days.”

The thinking you do in this part of the meeting sets the groundwork for a solid stakeholder engagement plan and buy-in from the folks you'll need to contribute. 

5. Success Factors And Risks

Lastly, it's important to take a moment to think about past projects that are similar, and discuss the things that went well so we can try to replicate those, and on the flipside, discuss the things that didn't go well so that we can make sure they don't happen again. 

What can we do to proactively ensure the good things do happen and the bad don't? This is where you’ll list your success factors and potential risks, and you can start to plan around those. 

What To Do After The Project Kickoff Meeting?

Phew, the meeting is over and there was a lot of great discussions. Now what? Take some time to review your notes and digest what was discussed. Did you say you would follow up with someone, or consult another team about a topic? Do your due diligence to fill any gaps that might still exist in your plan.

Next, write your project plan, develop your timeline, and share these details back with the project team members to make sure you’ve appropriately captured their input. Give them an opportunity to suggest changes before you share the approach widely and lock the team into a timeline. 

Make sure this info is saved in an accessible spot for everyone to see, and set a cadence for yourself to keep it updated (weekly, biweekly, monthly).

Think back to the resourcing discussion you had with the team, and develop your stakeholder engagement plan. What information from the plan needs to be shared with which stakeholders?

This is also the time to start thinking about the format of your client kickoff meeting (more to come on that). 

Kickoff-Meetings-Resource-Pack-V4

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What A Successful Project Kickoff Looks Like?

While there are many different ways to run a project kickoff, the end result should always be the same:

  1. There is a shared vision and clear expectations for the project team to rally around.
  2. There is a clearly documented way forward for the team. Which means anyone on the project team can point a stakeholder in the right direction on the deliverables, milestones, timelines, resources and responsibilities, how we’re setting ourselves up for success, and how we’re planning around risk. 

Kickoff Your Projects With Confidence

I hope this guide gives you the structure and confidence to lead (or elevate!) your own internal kickoff meetings in the future. I’d love to hear from you if you have any questions or alternative approaches. If you want to read more content like this and connect with other PMs, subscribe to the Digital Project Manager newsletter.

By Sarah Sime

Sarah Sime is the head of project management at the Canadian office of Initiative, a global media agency. For over 12 years she’s helped teams understand and navigate the human elements of projects. Her approach delivers solutions focused on results over rigidity.

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