A project kick-off call really should be a simple affair. You get everyone into a room and talk about the project’s goals and background, create a shared vision, and generally whip up some enthusiasm. Simple! But in reality, they usually go around in circles and nothing much happens. They can feel like an awkward blind date where nobody knows why they’re there or how to get things started. Someone will invariably suggest a painful introductions round in the desperate hope that something magical and creative will happen. If you’re lucky, someone will fake a heart attack and you can sneak out when the paramedics arrive. Eventually, the kick-off call becomes a “kick it down the road” call. It can happen on any project where you are expected to collaborate with another team.
Assuming everybody is still conscious and in the room afterwards, the rest of the call will consist of vague and random chit-chat that skirts around the edges of the issue. You might even have to endure a long-winded TED Talk by some “expert” on a topic nobody else cares about. When it’s all over, nobody will have a clue what’s going on and the only certainty is that many, many follow-up calls will be needed.
Guide the communication to keep things moving
The reason so many kick-off calls are miserable and unproductive is usually down to communication. There’s too much of the wrong type, not enough of the right type, and the right people aren’t doing it. Everything you need to know about a project is trapped in the head of people in that meeting. Notice how I said people there? It’s because no single person has all the answers. Unfortunately, kick-off meetings are usually too chaotic and unstructured to find this information quickly and painlessly.
The 90 minute kick-off call
Not long ago, I was working on a project that was taking forever to get started. After several calls we still had no idea what we were going to be working on. In hindsight there were a few things that contributed to this. On the client side, only the manager spoke. And he spoke a lot, unintentionally dominating each call. Unfortunately, most of it didn’t directly relate to the project and didn’t help us understand what was needed. His team stayed silent throughout, for whatever reason. Maybe they couldn’t get a word in edgeways or they didn’t feel empowered to speak. Maybe they were just shy. In any case, nobody offered any insights or opinions unless they were directly asked by their manager.
On our side, we spent a lot of time chatting and getting to know the client, trying to build a rapport. Useful, but not very productive. On top of this, some of the techies fell into the trap of discussing technologies and ideating before they really understood what they were being asked to produce. The conversations went around in circles and we never got to the heart of the matter. With yet another call looming, the prospect of spending another couple of hours trying to herd kittens filled me with dread.
After some experimenting, I came up with a three-step workshop format to get things moving in an orderly way. Inspired by Design Thinking methods, it helps ensure that the right kind communication happens in a controlled and structured way. If you have a good facilitator who can maintain order and keep people on track, it’ll take just 90 minutes. By the end, you’ll have something concrete to work with and the meeting will have been a productive use of time.
Running a good kick-off call
The first challenge is making sure you invite the right people to the call. Instinctively, people will invite the bosses because that’s what you do, isn’t it? But it doesn’t take a genius to know that you have to involve the people who will be doing the actual work. Sure, invite a manager for the high level, strategic stuff, but for the kick-off to work the entire team must be represented.
Decide on a format
This workshop format tends to work best in an online environment with fewer distractions caused by side-conversations and general chit-chat. It also means people are more likely to actively participate so you’ll get better insights. Also, because people can see each other’s content there is greater collaboration. It works best if you recreate the template in a tool like Mural. You can also run this as an in-person workshop, now that people are starting to return to the office. In this case you’ll need to recreate the template on whiteboards or smart walls. You could print a copy of the template for each person, but this lacks the potential for collaboration so should really be a last resort.
Explain the ground rules
Set aside 10 minutes at the start to explain how the call is structured and what each step involves. This is important if you’re going to get everything done in 90 minutes. Explain as politely as you can that, to make the best use of everyone’s time, you may need to interrupt discussions to keep things moving. Make sure participants know to use one sticky note per idea so things don’t get confusing; essays or ideas spanning multiple notes aren’t helpful here.
Step 1. Frame the project
This phase describes the internal landscape and how it affects the project. It’s all of those political, staffing, strategic, psychological and random things that form the motivation for project. It’s incredibly important to understand these things at the very beginning, not just to avoid unwelcome surprises but to start laying out some ground rules for how you’re going to proceed. You should aim to spend no more than 20 minutes on this including time to allow people to comment on unusual or surprising comments.
Step 2. Understand the Context
Define the context to get a broader look at all of the factors that shape not just what the project needs to achieve but more importantly, how those goals will be achieved. In my template, I use categories such as Customers, Industry, Strategy, Competition, and Technology Trends but you can tweak these to suit your own particular circumstances. There is more ground to cover in this step so allow 30 minutes for this activity, including clarification of individual notes.
Step 3. Define your goals
Before you write a list all of your hopes and wishes for the project and mail them off to Santa, you need to take a couple of steps back to keep things realistic and practical. Sure, you have to define your goals for the project but you also need to describe the current situation. In the absence of some sort of teleportation device, this is going to be a journey and you need to understand where you’re starting from.
Next describe the potential barriers that stand in your way. It’s important to discuss the barriers last and not at the beginning because conversations can go wildly off course when it comes to all the reasons something won’t work. Sometimes we discard brilliant because someone assumes it’ll be too difficult to pull off. But by doing it now, issues become challenges, and not reasons to give up. This step really only takes 20 minutes but allow an additional 5 minutes so you can explain the sequence and answer any questions.
Leave 5 minutes at the end to thank participants and explain what happens next. You can also use this time to make up for any slippage from previous steps.
Armed with all of this information you’re in a much stronger position to start planning for your project. Start by summarizing all of the key findings into a single, easy-to-digest document that tells the story of the project. You can share this with the rest of the team and use it as the foundation for the rest of the project. It helps to share the raw data from the kick-off meeting with the team too, so that they can see where the decisions and assumptions came from. With everyone on the same page, the real work can start. And it only took a 90 minute call and an hour or so to prepare the summary.
Download the following template and use it as a starting point for your own 90 minute creative kick-off. Please get in touch to let me know how the template worked for you or if you have any questions about it.