As I’ve got older and more experienced, I’ve also got lazier when it comes to preparing for meetings. Recently I was completely caught out when I checked my diary in the morning. That afternoon I had four external people coming in for a meeting that I had forgotten about!
It was an informal pre-kick off meeting for something that might turn into a project. I had a couple of hours to prepare which was plenty, but it made me feel a bit uncomfortable. It could have been worse – at least the meeting wasn’t at 9am.
We talked through the bare bones of what they wanted to do and I think there is something there. The next step will be properly initiating the project.
In this article, we’ll talk about what you should include in that kind of meeting: the project kick off meeting. But first, let’s talk about the project initiation phase and what needs to happen at the start of a project to set it up for a successful finish.
In this article:
- The Project Initiation Phase
- What documents are created in the project initiation phase?
- Your Pre-Project Questionnaire
- The Project Initiation Meeting
- The Most Important Project Question
The Project Initiation Phase
You kick off the project through the project initiation phase. This is where you get all the information together to work out exactly what it is you are supposed to be doing, by when, with whom.
It’s the very first part of the ‘real’ project, after the business case is approved but before the work starts.
How Long is Project Initiation?
There is no simple answer to how long the project initiation phase should be. On a small project, you could finish project initiation in a morning, following a chat with one other person.
On a big project, you might run multiple workshops with various different groups of stakeholders, each getting you closer to understanding the full project scope and objectives of the project. That could take a couple of weeks.
And you might need extra time to build your project plan and schedule after that. Project managers would call the planning phase a different part of the project lifecycle, but sponsors don’t see it that way in my experience.
They see ‘person doing thinking and planning and not delivering anything’ and ‘the ‘doing’ work has started’. They don’t much care about the specifics of how to manage a project as long as someone is doing the work in a noticeable way for them.
So don’t let anyone tell you are taking too long for project initiation. It takes as long as it takes. When you feel ready to start properly planning, then initiation is over.
What documents are created in the project initiation phase?
The business case should have been completed before project initiation.
Your Pre-Project Questionnaire
I’ve prepared a list of essential questions to ask when starting a project. These are questions to use in your project kick off meetings, and during the initiation phase so you fully understand what needs to happen.
Here they are:
- Why is this project important?
- What’s the problem you are trying to solve?
- What are you expecting the project to achieve? What do you see as the high level objective?
- Have the project’s requirements been documented yet? If so, where? By whom?
- What’s the solution that has been agreed, if any? What analysis was done about the proposed solutions?
- What are the project’s success criteria? (Read more about success criteria in my definitive guide to project success criteria)
- How does this project tie back to company strategy?
- How is this project going to be funded? Have all the funds already been secured?
- What are the constraints?
- What is most important: time, cost or quality? Or would you rank something else as the defining measure?
- Who benefits from the project?
- Who are the other stakeholders?
- What is in scope?
- What is deliberately out of scope and why?
- What internal and external dependencies should we be aware of?
- Have you done this sort of project before? If so, who can I talk to in order to learn about their experiences?
- What risks are you aware of already? How risky do you think these risks are? What do you think of these risks I know about already?
As you can see, there is a mix of project planning questions and other pre-project questions in the list. These are what I would typically ask during a project initiation meeting.
The questions related to project funding should (in theory) have already been sorted out as part of the business case. In fact, most of the answers to these questions should have been asked at business case time.
You can get a free checklist for project initiation in my project management resource library. It’s one of many free templates available to you. Let me send you the details: find out more here.
However, in my experience, it’s common that they either don’t get asked to the level of detail you need to know about to manage the project, or the situation has moved on and you have different responses now.
And sometimes, the funding isn’t secured, even though the business case is approved — or you only have funding for part of the project.
You might ask different stakeholders different questions, so pick and choose from the list depending on who you are talking to. I would run a series of individual one-to-one meetings and also a team kick off event.
Consider using transcription software to capture everything discussed in your meeting.
The Project Initiation Meeting
The project initiation meeting is a meeting you have at the beginning of a project to set expectations for the rest of the work. You might call it a kick off meeting (I do, sometimes, as it sounds less formal and therefore less daunting for people who will be attending).
Who attends the project initiation meeting
The core project team will normally attend the project kick off meeting. This includes:
- You, as the project manager
- The project sponsor
- The key day-to-day customer representative, assuming the project sponsor is so senior they won’t actually know how the processes or systems work in detail
- Anyone else who will be working regularly on the project team.
If you are going to use a legal person to draft a contract mid-way through, you wouldn’t invite them to this meeting. The objective is to get the right people in the room so you can all agree on what is going to be done and how.
The initial meeting could be just you and one other person, or you might have a packed meeting room. It just depends on what it is going to take to get the work done.
You might choose to run several different meetings, each with different attendees, focusing on a different topic. Then you’d combine the output of each meeting so you’ve got a complete view of everything that affects project initiation.
Project Kick Off Meeting Agenda
I have another article with detailed guidance on how to create a meeting agenda, but there are definitely some specific topics you’ll want to include in a project initiation meeting agenda.
An agenda for a project initiation meeting looks like this:
Don’t assume everyone in the room will know each other or have worked together before. Take time to introduce everyone and state their roles and what they will be responsible for on the project. This conversation is also useful to feed into creating a roles and responsibilities template for the team and a RACI matrix.
Equally, don’t assume everyone has worked on a project before. You might need to do a ‘what is a project manager and what will I be doing’ introduction to your own role.
Get the project sponsor to talk about the project objectives. Mention key dates, what has been promised and share the highlights from the business case if there was one.
The point of this is to set the project in context, so link it back to the company’s strategic objectives. This helps people understand why they are working on this thing. When people understand why, they are more likely to actually do the work.
Talk about what it is you are going to be delivering. Be specific. Talk about what you aren’t delivering too.
Talk about how you are going to get the objectives delivered. You aren’t doing detailed planning in this meeting. It’s more about ensuring everyone is on the same page for the way the work is going to happen.
For example, if you are going to use Agile methods, make sure everyone is aware of that. If they haven’t worked with Agile before, you might need to do some follow up sessions to help them understand what it means to work in an Agile team.
That’s a meeting that can be planned for early on in the project — as soon as possible, really.
Set expectations for weekly/monthly reporting, team meetings, time recording and anything else you need the team to be on the same page for. Layout the time scales for updating you with progress on tasks. You can even outline what the agenda of the weekly team meeting will be, or what you expect to be discussed in the standups.
If you use project management software, talk about how it works and how you expect others to use it (if you do). Generally, I don’t expect the rest of the team to input data directly into our project management tools, but you might need to explain to them how to do that or set them up with a login.
If your team has to track their time spent on the project, then make sure they know how to do that too. This isn’t the right time for a lesson in how to use the time tracking software, but note down who needs help with that and schedule some time for them to get some training or support before they need to start using it.
Normally, your next steps will be to do a planning workshop with the people who will be doing the work. Get the people in the kick off meeting to tell you who needs to be involved in that from their areas.
You’ll have been writing down next steps and actions as you go, so summarize what you’ve noted down. For example, any follow up meetings or training, or providing logins to people so they have the tools, skills and access they need to do their work.
Any other business. Give people enough time to ask questions and raise additional points that haven’t yet been covered.
You can also confirm the date and time of the next sessions, for example, your first weekly team meeting, if you haven’t already covered that in the next steps.
The AOB section of your meetings should get shorter over time as people get used to how to bring up topics for the room’s attention, but you should always include it in case there are things you have forgotten to discuss.
Typically, the actions from AOB are to make time to have further discussions, so note that in the action summary of the meeting.
During your meeting you should aim to answer the questions from the pre-project checklist above, where you haven’t had those responses from your one-to-one meetings with stakeholders.
Should You Invite the Client?
If you are doing a project for an external client, you might want to think twice about having them along to your first project initiation meeting with your internal team. It might not be appropriate for them to be there.
However, you should have a kick off meeting with the client. If you work in an agency environment where you are approaching the client kick off with a statement of work to discuss, and so on, then read this guide to project initiation from The Digital Project Manager. My experience is all on in-house projects.
After the meeting, capture and circulate meeting minutes to record the important points.
The Most Important Project Question
I always ask people: Is there anything else you’d like to add? Since I started asking this question when interviewing people for this blog or just in the course of my normal job, you’d be amazed at what gems of information come out.
Don’t assume that because you are a project manager you know what to ask! When asked an open question, people give you lots of other information that you wouldn’t otherwise have got. Try it!
For more guidance on how to manage project initiation, check out my ebook on the topic: The Rebel Project Manager’s Guide to Project Initiation & Scheduling.