Project Practitioners > Why Project Kickoffs Matter

Why Project Kickoffs Matter

By DeAnna Burghart

A friend of mine said something this morning that inspired me the minute he said it:

Teamwork in random teams has to start with you. Most people don't inherently work together unless you say something.

Yes, he's a gaming friend, and he was referring to fragging noobs in battlegrounds rather than any sort of project work. (We talk about this sort of thing on Friday mornings. It's OK, though; geek is cool now.) Battlegrounds aside, his offhand remark struck me as the sort of profound conventional wisdom that has to become a blog post. Whether you're talking about orcs vs elves or engineers vs marketers, I don't think I've heard a better description of the challenges in organizing a cross-functional team that's actually functional.

In a cross-functional team, you're often plucking people from departments scattered all across the organization. Yes, you picked everyone, and you know why they're there. But do they? They may or may not know each other. Maybe they've worked together on a previous project -- do you know how it went? They may or may not have compatible skills, communication styles, or personalities. Sure, you can trust them all to do their work. Otherwise, you wouldn't have selected them. But most people don't inherently work together unless you say something.

It's easy to tell everyone to just get to work, but easy won't necessarily get you better results. Taking the hour or two to get everyone together will help them understand how their work impacts each other, and give you a chance to uncover any of those personality landmines I hinted at above.

  • Talking about the expected deliverables will help you spot red flags where skills or experience might be missing.
  • Discussing deadlines will alert you to any planned vacations or conflicting projects that could undermine your plan.
  • Outlining roles and expectations is likely to raise personality issues and communication styles to the forefront now, while you can address them, instead of later, when people stop speaking to each other.

On every project I've run over the last two years, I've drug the team through at least a preliminary kickoff. Even if it was a two-person project and the "meeting" was a 20-minute phone call that I followed up with a summary document, I've done it. Almost every time, I meet resistance -- either subtly or outright. And every time, no more than halfway into the exchange, there's a moment when someone says "Oh, I hadn't even thought of that!" Sometimes, that someone is even me. It has saved my bacon more times than I can count. These days, I won't take on a project without at least one of these documents:

One-Page Project Summary -- This was originally designed for software release teams, but I find myself turning to it more and more often for everyday short-term projects. It's a great little organizer for keeping track of all the mission-critical info in one place. Using green-yellow-red status on the milestones list brings any potential issues into sharp relief, right next to the phone numbers and schedules of the people who can help. It takes me very little time to fill out, and reaps huge rewards. It's also a fantastic kick-off tool for getting everyone on the same page.

Milestone Table with Driver Tasks -- My version of this is in an Excel spreadsheet with nifty conditional formatting and a dynamic calendar, but the core of the template is exactly the same: the key milestone(s), and what has to happen to get there. Dependencies stand out in bold relief on a schedule like this, and it's been invaluable in my small-scale project work. Again, great kick-off tool, even for a two-person team.

Team Member Status Report -- No one asks me for these, but I send them out periodically anyway. Typically, I use an email version (last page of this file), and send it to the primary project stakeholders. This works much better as a red flag on important issues than a thousand little individual emails flying around saying "Aaaaaaahhhh! Help!!" although I admit that I send those more often than I should.

These three tools won't solve every project problem. (If wishing made it so.) But they are extraordinarily useful even to small projects -- perhaps especially to small projects. Larger efforts will typically have codified routines like Team Roles and Responsibilities Lists and formalized Project Charters, while little projects tend to get told "just do it." But little projects also involve teams, and as my friend pointed out, teams don't just happen. They're built. Most people don't inherently work together unless you say something.

So say something. Don't settle for anything less than a kickoff, even if it's an informal review that you have to drive people through. Trust me, you won't regret it, and neither will they.

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