Each week, project management veteran Tom Mochal provides valuable advice on planning and managing projects. He first describes a common problem scenario, based on a real-life situation, and then offers a solution, using practical project management practices and techniques.

Larry’s second project for the legal department was to convert our document scanning software to a new vendor package. He had already completed a Project Definition and was ready to begin work, so I was somewhat surprised to receive a call from him this morning. After some pleasantries, I asked him what was up.

The dilemma
“I have a favor to ask,” Larry said. “I know it is short notice, but can you attend a kickoff meeting in one hour?”

I was still curious as to what was going on. “I should be able to make it. Do you expect there to be problems? What do you want my role to be?”

“Actually, I know we talked in the past about using the standard processes and templates that have already been built,” Larry explained. “However, I noticed that we don’t have a really good standard agenda for a kickoff meeting. I would like you to look at my agenda and then see if it makes sense to adopt as a company standard.”

I don’t often receive offers from people to help create standard templates, so I was not going to say no. I attended the kickoff meeting with Larry and his legal clients. The meeting was structured as follows:

  • Introductions: Most people knew each other, but there were a few new faces, including mine.
  • Project Review: Most people knew the general background of the project and why it was needed. Larry went a little further and also covered the scope, major deliverables to be produced, the risks and assumptions, and the estimated effort and duration. These were details about the project that most people were not aware of. There was some discussion about whether all of the appropriate deliverables were included, as well as the deadline for completion. This give-and-take was good, since Larry was trying to set expectations.
  • Roles and responsibilities: This is an important area, since all of the people in the room had some role to play. In some cases, the clients themselves were not fully aware of the level of participation that would be required from them. Again, this entire discussion helped with establishing expectations for the project.
  • Project approach and overall timeline: Larry used this time to describe, in general, how the project was organized and how it would be executed. He did not go through the actual workplan, since it was too low-level to provide a clear, overall picture.
  • Questions: There was time remaining for any questions that were not covered in the discussion.
  • Recap/summary: This was a good way to end the meeting. Larry recapped the discussion that took place. He also covered a few items that needed immediate action, noted who was responsible, and when the resolution was due.

Mentor advice
I am usually called in to work on solutions for project managers’ problems. Larry’s situation provided me with a somewhat rare opportunity to watch a problem-free manager in action. Larry had obviously handled kickoff meetings before, and I think this one went very well. The agenda was good as well, and based on it, we’ll be able to create a common agenda template for others to follow.

You should note that the agenda was basically set up to mirror the Project Definition document itself. The Project Review section was obviously from the Project Definition, since Larry discussed scope, risks, and assumptions. However, even the next two areas on Roles and Responsibilities and the Approach and Milestones are a part of our Project Definition template.

One of the key takeaways from this experience is to reinforce the Project Definition document as the key deliverable to ensure the project is well planned out. The kickoff meeting is a way to get all the participants and major stakeholders together to communicate what the project is about and to set expectations. Rather than just read the Project Definition, Larry built an agenda that reflected the definition, and then presented the information in a discussion format.

Many people struggle with what to talk about at a kickoff meeting. But by building your agenda around your Project Definition, you can create a solid structure for this incredibly important first meeting. By doing so, you will cover the information that people need to know, and establish the expectations that people should have going forward. This puts you in a great position to charge ahead!

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project management and life-cycle skills. He’s also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America and has developed a project management methodology called TenStep.