There seems to be a consensus that kick-off meetings are rather important to bring a project to a successful end. We agree. A good start to the project is the most important thing you can do, to nail a project. 

Typically, you’ll find a list of steps you need to tick off during the Kick-off meeting. It often includes things like appointing a project manager, building a team, making a list of deliverables. These things are very self-explanatory. But one of the most important things is often overlooked. It is ‘Defining the Project’.  

Why Defining the Project is important

It’s all fine and dandy to tell your customer you’ll build them a really good website. But what does ‘really good’ mean? 

To a customer, a ‘really good website’ has only one meaning:

 Just to be clear, customers don’t want one of those. They want all three. 

No need to explain that that’s not quite what you had in mind when you said ‘a really good website’. As far as you are concerned, something will have to give. 

The problem is that so many project managers skip the subsequent and obvious conversation that needs to happen to align the customers ideas of what a ‘really good website’ is, with your understanding of the same phrasing. 

The question is: How do you determine the compromises that need to be made on the customers end to ensure a feasible project on your end? How can you communicate to your customer that they may me not be able to get it all?  And how can you still bring the project to a successful end with a happy customer as the cherry on the cake?

Figuring out what the customer wants

The right time to answer all these questions is the kick-off meeting. Despite all the other items on the meeting checklist , the main aim for this meeting is to figure out exactly what it is the customer wants. 

Especially where there are different stakeholders involved, you will want to make sure they all have the same vision of what exactly the project is. 

Most of us have experienced the situation where different people are involved in the project. They all have different ideas of what the project involves, or they have different priorities. For one person it just needs to be done as cheap as possible, while for the other one fast delivery is the focus. 

The only way around this is to get everybody in the same room and get them to agree about what it is they want. 

It’s important to realise that your job is to facilitate this meeting.  That’s all. It’s not your job as a project manager to decide what it is the client will get. If you want to have a happy customer, you need to leave that up to them. Failing that is a safe way to unhappy stakeholders. 

So what are the tools you can use to figure out what the project should look like? 

Key Drivers of a Project. 

One of the most important things to answer is what the key drivers of the project are. Is it Time? Is it Budget? Or is it Quality? This all boils down to finding out what your customer NEEDS, rather than WANTS. 

Sometimes the answer is clear: When building a Nuclear Power Station, Quality and Safety will be the main Drivers. Nobody will like for the project to be more expensive or to go on for longer than originally thought, but in the end, that’s where the compromise will need to be if it comes to making choices. 

But when building a website, things may not be so clear cut. Often customers are not even sure themselves what their key drivers are. They may have a budget in mind, but faced with the choice of a very basic website or one with more features, they may find that they are actually willing to spend more money. 

Some ways you can find out what your costumers’ key drivers are is asking why they settled on a particular Time, or Budget or set of Features. What is the thinking behind it? 

But it can also be very helpful to ask the ‘What if’ question. Their reaction will tell you a lot. If the response is ‘Oh, we would hate for our new website not to be ready on time, but if that’s what it is, we’ll just have to stick with the old one for a few weeks longer. As long as we get the features we want.’, then you have your answer. 

Creating realistic expectations. 

But here’s the real Segway that can make a difference. 

Some experienced project managers will recommend having 2 kick-off meetings.

The first one is to find out what it is the client wants and what their key drivers are.  Once you got to the bottom of that, you go away and do your homework. This means all the planning: 

This will give you a very defined idea of what is possible and what’s not in terms of the key drivers the customer indicated. But what’s more important, you’ve got all the data to back up the message you are about to give. 

Then you go back to the customer and present the plan. 

What you want to find out from this second meeting is what the client thinks about the plan. It may be a good idea to offer different versions of the plan. Too often clients have a long wish-list and a limited budget. So your different plans may be the Rolls-Royce version of the plan that includes all their Wants but comes with a price tag that exceeds their budget versus the Budget version of the plan where they may have to drop some items they wanted. 

This means that often in the second kick-off meeting you’re giving the client news that is not brilliant. But it gives them a choice, and you can justify what the options are. But more importantly, it will avoid scope creep, strained relationships and financial disasters. 

 Getting the Sign-Off

The final thing you want from the second kick-off meeting is for the client to commit and sign off on their decision. The committing is done in the meeting, however the signing off is often done in an email after the meeting rather than there and then. 

Our ultimate piece of advice is not to start the project until everybody has agreed on what they will deliver. A project that is woolly from the start and will guaranteed end up in pain.