Hi folks! Thanks for all the great feedback and here is the full article I have been sending out in pieces over the last month.
The Most Perfect Moment: Kickoff Meeting
The idea, funding, people and will to achieve are in one room. The product manager is the ring master, coordinating lions, acrobats and magicians to proceed into the shining future of on time, quality software product that users want and like. If the meeting succeeds, you are off to a great start, if it fails, it IS recoverable, but that takes more work than getting it right the first time.
A great kickoff should:
- Have the right people in the room
- Although important, you should have low expectations for action. All the actions, decisions and fights should happen before you get in the room.
- Create a shared mission through business and technical goals “The Why”
- Confirm “The What” we are building
- Let each person and team feel special and engaged
- Introduce the schedule, constraints, risks and opportunities
- End with a plan for next steps
- Last 2-3 hour tops
- Do a second kickoff for anyone who missed the first one.
Get the right people in the room.
- Optimally you have one key person, but likely you will have a couple – the actual decision maker and the person who actually goes to the meetings.
- The list should or could include:
- Executive Sponsor/Funder – if you can get a big wig to come for 10 minutes – people LOVE it.
- In house Legal and Regulatory (win a friend for life! No one includes them until its way late and they don’t know what you are doing. Then you get the task of giving them a crash course in your product. Educate them early and take a load off)
- Developers – Just one dev lead and an architect suffice
- Data Analytics Lead – you’ll need to be on their radar when you need reports
- Data Warehouse Lead – you will need them for any data storage issues and god forbid you collect new data, you will need some major diplomacy efforts that should start here.
- Test Lead Front End– Hilariously this person is often left to much later in the process. That is a mistake, your test lead can identify crap requirements from 20 miles away and will do a much better job testing if they are part of a team instead of an afterthought.
- Test Lead Database – news flash – you need to check the backend too
- Integration Lead – if you have a product that needs to be installed, customized or fine-tuned, these people need to buy into the dream since they will be going through hell to deliver it.
- Sales Lead – keep your friends close and your sales team closer.
- Marketing Communications – The main issue for you with these folks is to coordinate the marketing materials, demos, news releases and messages into the actual delivery schedule. Trust the project manager to do this at your peril.
- Customer Support – they may not come, but it’s nice to invite
- Project Manager – required time tax
- Subject Matter Experts – they talk a lot and will need several meetings
- Operations, and leads from technology teams you need help from in future – basically any gatekeepers who could show up in 2 weeks and tell your boss everything has to be stopped until they evaluate their pipeline and how your product may fit in. These guys have to be neutralized before kick-off.
Your Goal – Nothing new should happen in the kickoff meeting
All your heavy lifting such as approach, teams, high-level schedule and goals should occur before you get in the room. Think of kickoff as a mini launch. Act as if, what you announce there goes through the entire system and out to the Wall Street Journal.
- Prepare a draft preso in collaboration with your various partners
- Share for “feedback” (and Agreement) with – in this order
- Partner Tech
- Project Management
- SMEs/Exec – final check in (get all the bosses bought in)
Lower Your Expectations – It is not about you
Identify your goals and decide on your demeanor. The less you depend on the kickoff meeting to get things done, the better. PMs often have been working on an idea for weeks before kickoff and are ready to jump forward. Your audience has many constituencies with different levels of information. Typically, for new products – they often have information from 2 pivots ago that is now incorrect.
New and large scale products are risky, have lots of moving parts and can make teammates anxious. You need to know where the minefields are, and be ready to show calm leadership if people worrying in the meeting.
For every meeting, you should have a goal of about 3 things to accomplish. The first one is ‘if they only remember one thing”, followed by 2 nice-to-have items you want to communicate or accomplish
What is the single most important thing?
Why are we making this product? What does it mean for immediate goals and for the company overall. Extra credit points if you can connect the work to a good feeling for all who participate. Feelings are more interesting than ideas which are more interesting than tasks. So, you need a sentence like this:
We are kicking off the development of a mobile platform for the children’s education fund today, but before we get into details, let’s review the business context and goals for this new product. Uneducated children are sad and ruin nation states. The work you do on this product will improve the lives of children and make the United States safer.
Or- non sexy version
We are kicking off the creation of a new risk analytics algorithm for the real estate market. Many such algorithms exist, but we have never had the right one for our company that incorporates historical purchase data. This novel approach will create the first proprietary model in the company. It is exciting to be at the bleeding edge of financial risk management research.
Confirm “The What” we are building
It sounds silly, but I have been to many presentations where no one ever says what “it” is.
Engage the Team
This is a bit advanced, but where possible, have people present their own material. No one wants to hear you talk the whole time.
Keep it Short and Focus on Follow-up
It is a lot of new information. Most people will retain 10%. 90 minutes should do it. You should plan on doing a more discussion oriented follow-up meeting with each team to fine tune the schedule and approach. So, in a way, the second meeting is the real kickoff.
After the kickoff you should provide the following: the kickoff deck, the proposed high-level schedule, access to your share drive and a proposed schedule for weekly or bimonthly check-in meetings.
If anyone missed the meeting, set up a call to give them their own personal kickoff meeting
Kickoff Meeting Disasters and How to Handle Them
No one you need shows up. This can happen for a variety of reasons. Best thing is to reschedule. If that does not work, you can have 2 kickoff meetings, or an “executive kickoff” with a only execs, dev and a marketing (maybe operations).
Hijacked. There often you will have someone who want to pick holes in your preparation. Did you get the data from Fred? Did Rose agree to this? What about legal?
Of course the best defense is not to have any holes. Failing that, and the typical – “I will find out” response, you may need to looks a little deeper. Is this person sold on the project? Do they not want to be there, or do they perceive they have more skin in the game than others? If yes, set up a side discussion to directly address these concerns. In the larger meeting try to reassure the team that ultimately you are accountable, no other individual. Worst case, if this person is a heavy hitter, or the questions get out of control, collect the ideas, call the kickoff done and cover your kickoff materials in the first project meeting.
Solutioning too early. For new products, we often don’t know what we will build and how. Many times regulatory and funding questions may need to be answered. In other cases, constraints have ruled out certain solutions before you enter the room. That said, everyone is an armchair software developer or marketer and there may be a spontaneous eruption of ideas and possible solutions. It is up to you, but I think this is a good sign that people are engaged. The only issue might be that you set expectations on the final solution being vetted and communicated in another meeting. You don’t want people to leave thinking we all adopted their idea only to be rudely awakened in a couple weeks when the question is reopened.
Claim Victory and Move On
If the kickoff does not go s well as you hoped or cover the material, you wanted to cover; it is fine! Just claim it was a success and cover your material in the next project meeting. A kickoff meeting that occurs; has fulfilled its requirement to kickoff.
What happens after the kickoff….