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How to Successfully Kick-off the Project Engagement

~ By Brad Egeland

Some business people in a meeting with a laptop computer

You never get a second chance to make a first impression and you never get a second chance to successfully kick-off a project engagement. The project is obviously important to the customer or you wouldn't be running the engagement for them. And of course their money is important to them. This is your chance as the project manager to get the project off on the right foot with a well-prepared presentation and a well-run project kick-off session. It's not a just a show – it is your critical first chance to make sure everyone is on the same page, all the information you have is correct, everyone is working off the same assumptions, and you're heading into critical planning and design phases with a good knowledge of where you need to go.

To that end, the following steps have been the most productive for me to go through in planning for, preparing for, and then conducting the formal project kick-off with the project client. I've learned some lessons along the way, but this list has always helped me best prepare and get the project started off right.

Gather Information

The first step of the process is to gather as much information as possible about the project. Meet with Sales, go through the SOW with a fine-toothed comb, and review the draft project schedule and project estimate that you probably received from Sales. They had to put something together to price the project to the customer and to show the customer that they had a clue as to the project schedule and the deliverables that were to be involved. Re-create them in the format you want to use to manage the project effectively. Beef up the project schedule with what you know must happen…Sales doesn't have that PM detail in their heads of what happens on typical projects and neither did the customer when they were meeting with Sales.

Engage the Customer

Next, conduct an initial call or face-to-face meeting with at least the project sponsor on the customer side. The purpose of this is two fold:

  1. You want to introduce yourself and get to know the person or team you're going to be delivering to over the coming months.
  2. You need to discuss how the kick-off meeting will go, suggest who should attend and agree to some general ground rules with the project client.

Prepare to Present

Step three is probably the most time consuming step – the preparation. Using the statement of work, all information you were given by Sales, and the project schedule you've likely been working on for kicking off the project, put together a formal presentation with slides and an agenda.

As you prepare your materials and presentation slides, organise it in such a way so that all key information can be covered and discussed. The kick-off meeting is the time to make sure everyone starts the project on the same page and understands how the project will be executed. I always plan out a formal presentation that covers the following in at least some detail:

  • Statement of Work
  • Draft project schedule
  • Milestone dates (pull them from the schedule and review separately so that everyone is very aware of the key dates)
  • Budget (if this is appropriate given the attendees and your customer's preference)
  • Your PM methodology (let your customer know how you plan to manage the project)
  • Your change order process/change management practices
  • How you intend to handle risks/issues
  • Proposed schedule and frequency for status calls and status reporting
  • Initial list of assumptions and risks (if you're prepared for this at this point…otherwise wait until you have your first status call)

Depending on the type – and size – of the project, I believe it is common courtesy to send the presentation and agenda to the customer in advance of the formal kick-off meeting so they can mentally prepare for it and offer changes or suggestions for things they would like to see covered in the session.

Conduct the Formal Kick-off Session

Finally, it's time to actually conduct the formal kick-off meeting. Come to an agreement with the customer on date, time and location. From my experience, the location has usually been the customer site. And one critical note – discuss with the client who they intend to bring to the meeting. I learned this the hard way when I allowed a large Fortune 500 project client bring whoever they wanted to the table. What resulted was a project kick-off meeting consisting of me, my business analyst, a vice president, and about 50 client side participants. As you can guess the questions were never-ending, the discussions went way off track and it was very hard to get everything back on track when I was at the customer site and that far outnumbered. What could have taken three hours ended up taking parts of three days. If you find they intend to bring large groups of people to the kick-off then suggest possibly limiting participation so as to ensure you both have a productive experience that is organised and gets everyone's needs met in a timely manner.

Summary

Never take a project kick-off lightly – no matter how long or short the engagement, no matter how simply or complex the solution. The customer's money is the customer's money. They want to know that the project will be well managed and that they'll be getting a successful and workable end solution. It's your job as the project manager to make them confident at this critical stage that they will get that and then proceed to deliver on that promise.


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