Just as breakfast is the most important meal of the day, starting off with a shared vision is the best thing you can do for your project.
AND I NEED THIS... WHY?
At the best of times, projects operate like well-oiled machines. At the worst of times, it feels like Times Square traffic: your team doesn't seem to agree on the end goal, the project keeps stalling out because you're waiting on work from another team, and OMG would someone please just make a decision already?!
Although the idea of meeting to kick off a project might seem tedious, they're totally worthwhile – provided they're done right. If all you do is have a manager flip through a deck of bullet-point slides while the team pretends not to be sleeping, you're wasting everyone's time. You have to use this hour to get the whole team talking.
But here's the thing: kicking off a project "right" is going to look different for every project. So the Project Kick-off is a flexible, scalable play. You'll find a minimal set of activities to include, and a bunch of others you can mix n' match depending on what your team needs.
WHO SHOULD BE INVOLVED?
Pull the whole project team together. It's easier to have everyone in the room than to catch a bunch of people up later.
Running the play
The project kick-off is really a play-of-plays. Pick a set of activities from the selection below based on what your project needs most.
- Whiteboard or butcher's paper
- Sticky notes
- Rubber chicken
Divide up the whiteboard into five sections, or hang 5 pieces of butcher's paper on the wall, to use with the core activities. Label them as "Vision statement", "Drivers", "Functional scope", Non-functional scope", and "Stakeholders". Also prepare a piece of butcher's paper with the scales for the Trade-off Sliders activity, and stash that off to the side.
On a separate whiteboard section or piece of paper, write the list of activities you've selected – this will serve as the session's agenda.
Set the stage (5 min)
Start with the basics. Welcome the group, and thank everyone for taking time to be there. Quickly walk through the agenda you've chosen, but don't spend time going into a ton of detail about each activity.
Start a new page in Confluence to capture notes and photos from each of the activites. Ideally, someone other than the facilitator can be the designated scribe.
If you're doing the icebreaker activity, dive into that now. Else, start working through the core activities. Then do the mix n' match activities you've selected as time permits.
That's all there is to the format. It's meant to be flexible. Refer to the info below on the various activities as you're building out the agenda before the session. We included some example agendas to help get you started, but the key to this play is customizing it to your team's needs. Make it your own, yo!
By the end of the session, you might have a Confluence page that looks something like this.
Vision statement (10 min)
Summarise the project's value and purpose in a single (yes, single) statement.
Ask everyone to write a proposed vision statement on a sticky note (2 min). One by one, have each person read their statement aloud as they post it up on the wall (2- 5 min). Consolidate them into a unified vision statement (3 - 6 min).
Think about your project through the eyes of your customers – who may be internal or external – and what problem you're trying to solve for them. Also think about alternative solutions already out there, and how yours will be better.
The final statement will probably have a format similar to this:
"For <customer>, the <project name> does / provides / solves <problem / solution statement>. Unlike <competitor / comparison point>, it will <differentiator>."
If you can't agree on a vision statement in 10 minutes, you might want to run the Elevator Pitch play for your product or feature soon after this session.
Drivers (5 min)
Understand why the project makes sense.
Ask the team to write on sticky notes why you're pursuing this project. Think about it from the perspective of the customer, the company, and/or internal team's needs.
Have everyone post their stickies on the wall, then group similar ideas together. Read through each sticky and let the team know they're free to comment or ask questions. Do your best to clear up any confusion or inaccuracies. If you can't clarify everything on the spot, note that and follow up on it after the session. You might also follow up with the Problem Framing play afterwards.
Project DACI (5 min)
Figure out who will be the default Driver, Approver, Contributors, and Informed for decisions about the project.
Ask everyone to call out their understanding of who should fill the D, A, C, and I roles when it comes to most decisions. These are your defaults – it's ok to modify the DACI for specific decisions as the project moves along. For simple projects, the facilitator could offer up names to start with, and amend based on the group's input.
Clear up uncertainties and disagreements to whatever extent you can. If you come out with a clear DACI, great. If not, you should probably run the full DACI play soon after the Project Kick-off session.
Project scope (15 min)
Get an initial read on what's in and out of scope.
Back to the sticky notes! Have everyone write down what they feel should be in and out of scope for the project. This might be expressed in terms of specific features or tasks, or in terms of which problems will be solved – you'll probably get a mixture of both, actually.
Go around the room and ask everyone to talk through their ideas for scope and put their stickies up in the Functional and Non-functional scope areas, as appropriate. Even after talking it all through, you're pretty much guaranteed to have some areas of uncertainty. Make a note to follow up on them after the session.
Trade-off sliders (10 min)
So you can make smaller decisions quickly and autonomously.
Refer to the Trade-off Sliders play for full instructions. Since you're trimming it down to a 10-minute activity, don't spend a ton of time discussing and sliding the dots around. Treat today as a quick gauge of how close your team is to consensus already, and whether you need to follow up with the full 30-minute play.
Project timeline (10 min)
Take a rough swag at when you're going to deliver.
Draw a horizontal timeline. Label the left endpoint as "today", and leave the right endpoint unlabeled. Mark whatever milestones you know about already (e.g., early user testing, wireframes complete, rollout to customers, etc). As a group, discuss roughly when you'll hit these milestones and/or what pieces of the project need to be complete for each.
Remember: these are estimates, not blood oaths. Make your best guesses, but don't stress too much about precision right now.
Involving multiple team members with diverse skills sets in the "ready to go" phase helps ensure you capture all aspects of what you'll deliver and develop that all important shared understanding.
Mix n' match activities
If you feel like the core activities are all your project needs, that's cool. But if you can make time, one or two of these might make the session even more useful.
Icebreaker (10 min)
Get to know each other a bit, and prime yourselves for the discussion ahead whilst you're at it.
If this team hasn't worked together before, keep it simple: everyone introduces themselves and what their role is. If the kickoff is expected to focus on a specific challenge, aim to have a theme that gets your brains working a bit more.
Epic journey (30 min)
Spec out flows and user journeys at a high level.
Take 10 minutes to do an initial break-down of the epic-level issues for the project, draw a flow-chart of the user journey, or create a story map.
Then spend 20 minutes talking through each piece. Ask questions like:
- What user personas are involved?
- Where it fits in the user experience?
- Are there other epics or work streams that depend on it?
- What it doesn't include?
If this is being done along with the Architecture walk-through (see below), include stepping through the Architecture diagram with user flows.
Architecture walk-through (20 min)
Visualise changes to complex systems.
This is primarily for software projects. Make sure your architect is in the room and understands they'll be leading this activity.
Ask the architect to diagram out roughly what the new system will look like. Spend about 10-15 minutes walking through it. The group should feel free to ask questions until everyone has grokked the architect's vision.
Optional extra: Ask everyone to write on sticky notes the places they see risks in both the architecture and dependencies introduced. Post them up on the diagram, allowing each person to talk through the notes they wrote. Make sure to write these down or capture them in some way!
Dependency-driven timeline (20 minutes)
Create a more realistic timeline when the project has lots of dependencies.
Take all the sticky notes from the Scope exercise and create a tree of dependencies, starting from the first item that other things depend on – both up- and downstream dependencies. Use a different color for work from stakeholders or external teams.
Walk through the tree, noting any hard deadlines or pre-existing expectations around delivery dates. As you work through the tree, try to clarify milestones and make sure everyone understands what's driving the dates.
Write up any risks that were uncovered so you can follow up with external teams afterwards.
Success factors (10 min)
Decide what "awesome" looks like.
Ask everyone to write down what they think will make this project a success. Have the team post up their ideas. Discuss how you could measure each one, and give a finger-in-the-air target for each metric.
RAID (15 min)
Call out risks early, and plan preventive steps.
Ask everyone to write down points for the following on sticky notes and post them on the wall:
- Risks - things that could happen, and would affect quality, timing or cost of the project (or a combination).
- Assumptions - things that are currently true and form the basis for a plan, but any change in them would create a risk or issue.
- Issues - things that have already happened that adversely affect the project.
- Dependencies - things that need to be done or provided, either once or regularly, to make the project a success.
Group similar points together, and discuss. Make sure to create JIRA issues to track any follow-up tasks coming out of this.
Communication plan (10 min)
Regular check-ins for visibility and timely feedback during project execution
Nobody likes meeting about meetings, but... Figure out how the team is going to communicate. What sort of info should go on Confluence pages? Will you create a HipChat room for the core project team to use? Will you hold daily stand-ups? Or periodic check-ins?
How frequently will you run your project team Health Monitor session?
If stand-ups or other regular meetings will be part of the project, try to book them right then and there when it's easy to talk about who can shuffle which parts of their calendar around.
Here are some questions and themes we like to use for the Icebreaker activity.
Be sure to run a full Health Monitor session or checkpoint with your team to see if you're improving.Find your Health Monitor
KICK-OFF REPLAY (30 min)
"One more time!..." 🎤
When your Project Kick-off is stakeholder focused, it's good to have a team-focused replay session. They're simple to run, and can be very fast.
Trot out all the butcher's paper, photos of whiteboards, etc from the original session. Talk through a blow-by-blow of how that session went, pausing for questions and discussion as needed. This should uncover a few places where the team still isn't clear. Decide which you need to follow up on immediately, and which you could take a wait-and-see approach with.
Between the core and the mix n' match activities, you probably have a few follow-up tasks distributed amongst the team. Create JIRA issues to track them so it's easy to know when progress is (or isn't) being made.
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