All of us project managers are eager beavers. It’s an innate part of who we are. We love getting things started and seeing stuff happen. But in the case of kicking off a project with a client, it’s important not to rush into them before first prepping properly with an internal project kickoff meeting.
Internal project kickoffs are a critical part of the larger project kickoff process. When it comes to the order of operations, internal kickoffs should be done before any client kickoff or pre-kickoff.
Going into a client kickoff meeting with an informed team and a deliberate plan helps you get the most out of your discussion—learning as much as possible and making important project decisions without wasting valuable hours, money, and face-to-face client time.
In this article, we’ll propose a best practice internal project kickoff meeting agenda and explore how we can ensure we start our projects and project management activities with the best chance of success.
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The Importance of Internal Kickoffs
Project managers need to treat internal kickoffs with the same consideration as a client kickoff. The internal project kickoff isn’t just a precursor to the first meeting with the client—they’re a cornerstone and they set the tone, style, and vision for the entire project lifecycle. They’re a chance to educate the project team, develop cohesion and relationships, set expectations, and ensure everyone has a clear understanding of the project so we don’t find ourselves floundering in front of a client.
When we’re not careful, internal kickoff meetings are often relegated to a snatched five-minute conversation in the hallway, five minutes before the actual client kickoff meeting. Internal project kickoffs are hard, and they’re often that meeting that people seem to opt-out of. But if we get this right and start a project right, the entire project is much more likely to be a success.
If we don’t get this right, or we rush into it before preparing properly beforehand, whether, from eagerness on the part of our clients or internally, we can find ourselves in a meeting characterized by an uninformed round table of introductions, boring icebreakers, and purposeless conversation that, at best, provides only slight clarification to project direction and goals—and at worst, can get a new project canceled before it has even started.
How To Do Your Internal Project Kickoff Planning
Going into a kickoff meeting with an informed team and a proper project plan helps you get the most out of your discussion with the client and project stakeholders. It’s important for the team to know as much as possible about the client and project before they start asking stupid questions in front of the client!
It’s also important for the team to work together to come up with a solid plan that’s going to instill confidence in the client, and to collectively make any important project decisions ahead of time, so that valuable hours, money, and face-to-face client time aren’t wasted with internal debates with the client watching (and becoming increasingly concerned that the agency team doesn’t really know what they’re doing).
Allowing the team members to have input on the official project plan also helps ensure ownership and accountability when it comes to project tasks. It’s important for you as the project manager to guide team members as they help shape the project plan, to ensure it’s still in line with the statement of work, client expectations, and project approach.
How to Prepare for the Internal Project Kickoff Meeting
Before you jump into a meeting with your team members, you’ll need to have a few things ready. Take time to gather all the relevant information and find out everything you can about the client and project, as well as collect any other relevant information you’ll need.
Distill this into a format that is easy for your team to absorb and make a note of anything you don’t know or any remaining questions you have for later.
Here’s a (non-exhaustive) list of items to prepare:
- Internal team members — names, roles, and any other information
- Project sponsors and client team members — names, roles, and any other relevant details
- Project type and methodology
- Client’s preferred approach
- Project purpose and goals
- Project scope — what’s in and what’s out
- Internal communication and collaboration — client expectations and internal expectations
- Client kickoff meeting details — agenda, goals, what will be covered
- Next steps
The Internal Project Kickoff Meeting (AKA Team Kickoff Meeting)
Once you’ve done all your prep work, you’ll need to prepare an agenda for the internal project kickoff meeting and invite your team to the meeting itself. We’ve prepared an internal kickoff meeting agenda template for you to work from, as well as a sample so you can see how it’s done.
Don't forget to read Sarah Sime's tips on how to do an internal kickoff here!
Internal Kickoff Meeting Agenda Template and Sample
Download our agenda template and sample for internal kickoff meetings and follow along with our tips and explanations below for best results. Edit the agenda to fit your unique project needs.
Walkthrough Of The Internal Project Kickoff Agenda
You’ll find the basic info in the internal project kickoff agenda sample and template (see above!), but here’s a detailed walkthrough of the items and what they mean. Every project is unique, but there’s value in ensuring that we cover off some of these basics to get our team on the same page:
1. Introductions — meet your new best buds (15 mins)
Start the meeting off by allowing your team to get to know each other. Whether your team is made of up of freelancers or agency team members that have worked together on previous projects, starting off with an icebreaker or some chit-chat will help the team get to know each other (if they don’t already) and start to build positive relationships that will set the tone for teamwork throughout the project.
Ask team members to introduce themselves, their role, and background, and share a fun fact or tidbit about themselves.
2. Client — what’s the background? (5 mins)
Set the scene to help everyone understand the sandbox you’re playing in. Sharing is caring, so don’t hoard any logins or documentation to yourself. Share everything you know with the team so they can get up to speed themselves and empower and equip your team with all the relevant information they need to digest.
To keep the meeting on track, it’s probably worth delaying any Q&A until the end, otherwise, this section of the meeting can end up taking a disproportionately long length of time.
Share how you got to work on the project — was it a direct award from an existing client, is it a brand new client or is it a friend of the CEO’s? Explain what you’ve done in the past with the client, or with different clients but similar projects, and help the team understand who you’re working with.
We all know clients come in all kinds of flavours. But to our teams, they’re often the people who always make bad decisions. Try to position the clients in a positive light. To prevent any serious cases of foot-in-mouth, explain client distinctives to your team. Let them know who they are (internal/external), what we know about them, other projects they’ve worked on, and how the client likes to work.
3. Project — why are we doing this? (5 mins)
To further help put the project into perspective you need to help your teams understand why they’re doing the project in the first place. This means sharing the client’s business drivers for initiating the project, and ensuring there’s clarity as to what success, or failure, looks like.
And from a customer experience perspective, initiate the discussion with the team around how this project makes customer’s or citizen’s lives better and meets their needs.
From the outset, maximizing the positive customer experience should be at the heart of why you’re engaged with the project. Cast a vision for why the team should care about the project and help everyone understand that what they’re doing is contributing to something that’s worthwhile.
Finally, from an agency perspective, you need to be clear about what a successful project looks like beyond simply delivering on time, on budget, and to the agreed scope. How are you as an agency going to grow as a result of doing this project – will you develop a new capability or competency with a new technology?
4. Scope — what are we doing? (20 mins)
When the project background is set, it’s time to get into the scope details with the team. Normally that means reviewing the project timeline, estimate, project charter, and SoW (statement of work) so that everyone understands the flow of the project, the activities, and the outputs or deliverables. Without boring everyone to death, help them understand the quirks of the project, so the whole team is aware of the constraints from day one.
This is a great time to start the RAID (Risks, Assumptions, Issues, and Dependencies) log. There’s nothing quite like a SoW review to get people talking about what’s going to go wrong. The sooner you know, the better.
If anyone’s tried this before and failed, why was it? And how can you mitigate against it? Knowing the insider track and your team’s unique understanding of similar projects will help develop a culture of openness and ensure surprises are kept to a minimum.
5. Approach — how are we going to make this happen? (20 mins)
Reviewing the SoW and the proposed activities and outputs creates a great opportunity to discuss any process changes or new approaches the team wants to try. Remember that new isn’t always better, and tried and tested often works just fine. So cast a vision clearly and don’t end up on a wild goose chase to the bleeding edge of technical or process idiocy.
Assuming the SoW has already been approved, remember that if you change the approach you need to ensure you’re still able to meet the client’s (and agency’s) project goals and that you’re still delivering what you promised. This isn’t just an opportunity to make life easier for yourselves.
Nonetheless, cultivate ownership of the project within the team. In order for the project to be a success, the team needs to feel like it’s their project. By leaving time and space for your team to suggest ideas, challenge your plan, and come up with a better way of working, you’ll end up with a much more robust approach and a much more engaged team.
6. Roles — who is doing what? (5 mins)
When the team has had a chance to understand the project and the context of how they might fit within it, it’s worth clarifying the team’s roles and responsibilities. It can be helpful if you’re able to map their roles back to the SoW and clarify the deliverables associated with each area, why they exist, and what needs to happen to make them a reality.
It can be helpful to define a RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed) matrix against the SoW for the deliverables and the team. The RACI will help mitigate any uncertainty of responsibility and clarify your team’s comfort levels with delivery.
7. Teamwork — how are we going to work together? (5 mins)
When bringing together a team that has never worked together before there’s going to be a range of understanding on:
- How the team should work together
- How collaboration should be managed
- How communication should flow
- When the team should meet
- The tools that should be used
- Which systems you’ll use to share deliverables or outline details of specific tasks or tickets
As PMs, our role is to make it simple, to put everyone at ease, and get people excited about working together on the project.
Often there’s no right or wrong to these approaches, but giving your team as much autonomy as possible is helpful in getting buy-in. You want them to feel like they’re masters of the project, and help them establish common goals for working together so everyone is accountable throughout the project.
Define your expectations and let the team agree together on exactly how they will deliver. By clarifying the teamwork and agreeing on the nuts and bolts part of how it’ll all get done, we’re helping manage our team’s expectations on what’s acceptable and what’s not.
8. Kickoff — what’s the agenda for the client kickoff? (5 mins)
As a project manager, you should already have a plan in place for the client kickoff meeting — the purpose of reviewing it with your team is to get their buy-in and provide a sense of context and urgency for the next steps.
If at all possible, go beyond the usual discussion items that are on the kickoff agenda and discuss any useful exercises that can be run during the client kickoff meeting to gain some early insights or kick-start the project.
Agreeing on an agenda for the meeting with your team can help crystalize their focus and provide a helpful context for any pre-work that is required. Planning the meeting is also a great way to review actions and decisions that were made earlier in the meeting in terms of project scope, approach, roles, and teamwork as you plan how to share them with the client.
Beyond just agreeing on an agenda, think about scheduling another planning meeting to rehearse what you’re going to say, who will say it, and what slides you’ll show, as well as practice any activities. You’d be surprised at how quickly you’re able to refine the agenda and meeting content when you rehearse it properly.
This extra step will help your team feel more comfortable, allow you to communicate clearly what you expect of them in front of the client, and empower them to deliver.
9. Next — how do we keep momentum? (5 mins)
There is a temptation to be a bit casual when starting a project — no one really knows what’s going on and it might even be that you, as the project manager, are actually the last to be brought onto the project. The way you manage the first few meetings and interactions sets the scene for the rest of the project.
To keep momentum going, be very clear about next steps. Make sure everyone is clear on what they need to do next and when they need to do it, as well as on any review milestones along the way.
This is your moment to be large and in charge! At this point you need to be very clear about what needs to happen to make the client kickoff meeting a success. Then, guide your team to work back from that.
10. Q&A — what haven’t we told you? (5 mins)
Hold a Q&A session with your team members after you’ve covered everything else. This will give them the opportunity to ask questions to clarify, and team members will often point out a few things that you haven’t thought about or haven’t discussed with the client yet.
We all want great project kickoff meetings but are we doing the right groundwork with our clients so we can have a better client kickoff meeting? Projects can unravel as early as the project kickoff meeting when we should be still in the honeymoon phase!
There is a simple way to help improve the chances of your project kickoff meeting going well, to have better client meetings, and to start your project on a positive trajectory. It’s as simple as having lunch in the form of a pre-kickoff before the actual kickoff meeting.
Have a meeting with the client prior to the project kickoff meeting, grab some food, have some banter, and iron out those prickly and pesky details that tend to derail things ahead of time.
For more on project kickoffs, check out the rest of our series: