Kickoff meetings: How to get projects off to an excellent start
Kickoff meetings mark the start of important projects. In this article, we shed light on their objectives and design. You will also find helpful tips and a free checklist.
Projects and successful teamwork depend on clarity — and understanding, orientation and clear goals are essential. A kickoff meeting is an effective instrument for teams to get to know each other better, to agree on their tasks and their purpose, and to strengthen the overall understanding. It usually marks the start of a project or the beginning of a new business year.
A kickoff meeting, which can also function as an entire event, lays the foundation for the success of a project or for effective cooperation between a team. Motivation, team cohesion, goal orientation, and an overarching understanding of one's own tasks are all key factors that a good kickoff meeting delivers.
This article explores the DNA of effective kickoff meetings, the different types, and what they are used for. It explains how to organise a goal-oriented kickoff meeting and gives valuable tips on how to make it successful.
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What is a kickoff meeting?
A kickoff meeting is a special meeting that—after planning—marks the beginning of the implementation of a project. It is intended to explain the purpose and importance of, and plan for the respective project. It also serves as an opportunity for the team to get to know each other — and to build motivation.
Usually, all members of the respective project team and, if necessary, other stakeholders are involved in a kickoff meeting. In addition to goals and details, it is also about placing the project in a larger context.
Time and duration
Kickoff meetings often take place at the beginning of a business year, when teams and departments also define business objectives and plan their activities. Therefore, a kickoff often forms—quite officially—the start.
The duration of a kickoff meeting is highly individual; there are great differences depending on the need for discussion. In general, however, a kickoff is a very detailed meeting and usually extends over several hours. In some cases, kickoff meetings can also last several days or take the form of an entire kickoff week.
What are the objectives of kickoff meetings?
Kickoff meetings are intended to do one thing above all: get projects off the ground successfully. Situated between the planning and implementation phases of a project, they provide clarity about the next steps and give motivation to those involved.
Kickoff meetings ensure a common level of knowledge — and also the classification of the respective project in the bigger picture. Therefore, kickoff meetings should connect with the broader, strategic organisational goals.
The following details are important at a kickoff:
Information: A kickoff meeting is a great opportunity to share important project information with teams. Participants can ask questions directly, which can in turn be clarified. This is also an ideal way to avoid misunderstandings at the outset. In addition, conditions such as budgets, timelines (sprints), and information on possible external support can be shared.
The project goal: If you don’t know the project’s goal, you won’t achieve it. Having a clear understanding of the overarching goals helps to avoid "siloed thinking" and unstructured work. Your goals should be clearly communicated so that participants understand what is to be achieved and how the success of the respective project will be defined.
The overarching strategy: In order for those involved to understand the project goal and place it in context, further context is needed. First and foremost, the role that the project in question plays in the wider company objectives should be communicated. In other words, how does the project contribute to achieving the company's strategy?
Motivation: If the participants are informed but aren’t committed, a kickoff meeting has not achieved its goals. It is an ideal moment to generate motivation. For example, showing appreciation authentically, demonstrating the potential outcomes for the individual, or looking back on past successes are effective ways of generating motivation among the project team.
Vision and meaning: It is important to know where the project is headed. In addition to the goals and the alignment with the corporate strategy, the deeper vision also counts. What does "the world" look like when it has been successful? What meaning does the project create? What is the higher purpose the team is working on?
The methodology: If you want to achieve a goal, you also have to know the way to get there. Ergo, the methodology and the ways of working are also of high importance. What exactly do those involved have to do to make progress? How will this be measured? What exactly should the reporting look like? How do you intervene if the team is behind schedule?
Communication during the project: Kickoff meetings are often a communication exception. Teams and collaborators meet who otherwise communicate mainly asynchronously or exchange information in videoconferences. These meetings are therefore a good opportunity to define the communication channels in the course of the project. What should be the central communication platform? How should status updates be made? How can too many meetings be avoided?
Kickoff meeting agenda
Every formal meeting should have an agenda. If we use meetings as instruments to achieve goals, the meeting goals should definitely be defined in advance. To ensure that a kickoff meeting is clearly focused on results and promises a good start, it is important to formulate the agenda in questions. Our agenda template provides a valuable overview of how to design a goal-oriented agenda.
In the run-up to a kickoff meeting, you should think very carefully about what you want to achieve:
- What information needs to be shared?
- Where is there a need for clarification? How can it be covered?
- What suggestions and short presentations will move the team forward?
- How can team dynamics and alignment be achieved and maintained?
- What would best motivate those involved?
Tip: The most efficient way is to link the agenda directly to the meeting minutes. In this way, the agenda can be used as a template for the minutes and supplemented with notes. This is not only an easy way to take minutes, but also provides a high level of clarity.
Agenda should clearly contribute to the achievement of goals
An agenda is goal-oriented if it puts the meeting on track and towards productivity. Thus, every single agenda item should contribute to the meeting's goal and answer a related question.
For example, a kickoff meeting could have the goal of answering the following question: How can we implement a marketing campaign for our new product X in order to generate the greatest possible number of leads? A question on an agenda item could then be as follows: What tool support do we want to use so that everyone has a high level of overview during the course of the project?
An example of an agenda for a kickoff meeting could look like this:
1.1 Address by the project leader
1.2 Short check-in
2. What is the vision and meaning of the project?
2.1 Vision: What do we want to achieve?
2.2 What does the project mean for the company?
2.3 How have previous comparable projects succeeded?
3. What are the project goals and how do they fit with the company goals?
3.1 What are the individual project objectives?
3.2 What are the overall company goals?
3.3 How do the two fit together?
3.4 Who knows the most about the project? A short interactive quiz
4. Who works with whom? Brief mutual acquaintance of the project teams
4.1 What is the composition of each team? What are the roles and responsibilities?
4.2 Briefly getting to know each other in the teams
5. What is the project plan? What are the steps to be followed?
5.1 What do we want to achieve?
5.2 Which steps and sprints are planned?
5.3 What problems and risks can occur?
5.4 What can individual employees contribute in concrete terms?
5.5 What tools will be used?
6. How can we achieve the project goals?
6.1 Dividing the participants into groups on specific questions
6.3 Voting on the best ideas
6.4 How can we follow up on the ideas?
Check-out and feedback
This example of a kickoff agenda is intentionally generic. Depending on the specific project and individual goals, the agenda should go into more detail. For example, it may address specific questions about a new system or about a software solution to be implemented.
Kickoff meeting: In person or online?
Kickoff meetings are groundbreaking and therefore usually a good opportunity to meet on-site. Even with remote or hybrid work, this is usually the case. After all, the start of a project, at which kickoff meetings are held, is a good occasion to get to know each other better on site, to reach the same level of information and to work out concepts together in peace. This can be particularly important for teams that otherwise only have virtual contact.
Kickoffs can also be held online
Nevertheless, in some cases it can make sense to hold kickoff meetings online. This is the case, for example, if the teams in question are too far apart geographically and the travel costs are not in favourable proportion to the results. Another reason could be that there is simply not much need for discussion. In such a case, an online meeting makes more sense because it saves time that can be used for important individual work, for example.
For a kickoff in digital form to be successful, it needs an extra dose of creative energy: after all, it is particularly important that it appeals to the participants, motivates them and leads to valuable dialogue. This article offers ideas for this.
Tips for successful kickoff meetings
Kickoff meetings are meant to energise, clarify, and initiate work processes and, if possible, provide inspiration. As a project start, they usually have an outstanding significance:
- Every beginning has a touch of magic: As the first step in a project, a kickoff meeting can have a special effect on the participants. If the design is convincing and the spark is ignited, an important basis for the success of the entire project has already been created. Because the start is - as so often - decisive.
- It is a mostly rare opportunity for project teams to meet, discuss, agree on goals and create connections. So if a kickoff meeting goes well, it can positively shape the whole atmosphere and the way we work together.
Tip #1: Invest enough time in preparation
There are many wise and meaningful quotes on the importance of preparation. Therefore, just this much: without adequate preparation, the benefit of a meeting is very limited. Apart from the principles of planning, a kick-off meeting deserves a little more attention.
In general, the more formal a kick-off should be, the more extensive preparations are necessary.
In general, the more formal the kickoff, the more extensive the preparation. This starts with the invitations - a particularly delicate point. There is no question that the core team should be involved. But what about executives, possible clients, or other external participants? While it is generally easier to discuss in smaller groups, no one who is involved or can provide valuable input should be left out.
The right timing is also very important: kickoffs are generally held at the beginning of the year. However, quite different dates are conceivable for specific projects. In other words, the project phase - the start of implementation - should be right. Likewise, all participants should have time; early planning with correspondingly early invitations is recommended.
Furthermore, the following points are important:
- A goal-oriented agenda (see above)
- A designated person to take minutes (online meetings can also be recorded).
- Setting clear goals
- Compiling relevant documents
- Clarifying critical questions in advance so that the discussions are more productive
- Informing presenters in particular about the procedures in good time
- Identifying possible blockers - such as lack of information and conflicting priorities - in good time
- Defining expectations; ask participants for input
- Booking rooms for on-site meetings
- Organising the necessary equipment
Tip #2: Work with icebreakers
Kickoffs are usually exceptionally long meetings. The longer a meeting goes, the more worthwhile it is to invest in so-called icebreakers at the beginning. These not only stimulate the willingness to discuss, but also lighten the mood. People who go into a meeting with a positive feeling participate more actively and absorb information better.
Icebreakers can be questions as well as short games. It is important that they should not be too content-related. In an icebreaker question, for example, it does not make sense to list recent professional successes. More private, positive associations are more sensible, such as a question about a favourite place or out of work activity.
Quiz questions can be a good choice here. How about a get-to-know-you game in the form of a quiz? If points are awarded and a winner is chosen, the fun and motivation increase.
Creative introductions can have an essential impact on the overall effect of meetings.
Tip #3: Define clear roles and responsibilities
Clear roles and responsibilities are essential both in the kickoff meeting itself and in the course of the project. The most important roles are those of the Meeting Leader and the minute taker. In formal kickoff meetings it may also make sense to engage an external moderator.
Other meeting roles are as follows:
- Meeting Organiser
- Agenda Item Leader
- Meeting Participant
In general, a clear division of roles helps to ensure that participants focus on clear and specific goals and make meaningful contributions. As a consequence, the success of your kickoff meeting will increase.
Likewise, responsibilities for the course of the project can be defined during a kickoff meeting. There should usually be one person responsible for the whole project. Reports must also be given to certain people - such as managers or clients. The following questions should be asked:
- Who is responsible for the project?
- To whom should updates be reported?
- Who should be informed?
- Who can/should be consulted?
- Who prepares the project data and updates?
Tip #4: Explain how project updates should be done
It is crucial that all stakeholders are sufficiently informed. This often turns out to be more difficult than expected. After all, many of the contributors are often involved in other projects and devote their attention to multiple issues. In any case, there is information overload - not only in the working world.
Therefore, an essential part of a kickoff meeting is to define how updates will be made:
- How regularly do updates take place? To whom?
- What form should the updates take?
- Which platform or software solution can be used?
- How will it quickly become apparent if the project goal is in jeopardy?
- How can feedback be collected, evaluated, and incorporated?
Tip #5: A well thought-out follow-up
Kickoff meetings have a specific purpose: to get a project off to a successful start. So the primary goal is to create the conditions for a favourable course. Discussions in a kick-off have a formative character which lasts for the entire project.
Discussions in a kick-off have a formative character which lasts for the entire project.
To ensure that the results of the meeting are adequately summarised and the measures to be taken are clear, it is worthwhile conducting a thorough follow-up. A record of the results should be shared in any case. For formal kickoff meetings, it also makes sense to have detailed minutes of the proceedings. Often, a concrete action plan can be drawn up afterwards, showing the steps to be taken.
What to avoid in kickoff meetings
It often helps a lot to see how things shouldn’t be done. After all, leaders and participants in kickoff meetings quickly fall into patterns of behaviour that are not exactly optimal.
The following should not happen in kickoffs if possible:
Focus on delivering presentations: It is true that presentations are part of kickoff meetings. However, you should avoid using them too much. Instead, giving short impulse talks rather than long monologues is more effective. With the latter, the opposite of the actual intention is achieved, i.e. to let goal-oriented and lively dialogues develop. A kickoff meeting should be less of a lecture and more of a workshop. After all, it forms an important platform for getting to know each other, exchanging ideas within the team, and asking questions.
Give too much input: The guiding principle "less is more" certainly applies to kickoff meetings. Often there is a lot of information at the start of a project, expectations are high, and the pressure to really get started is palpable. Against this backdrop, it is easy for too much, varied information to be shared. It is often impossible for the participants to remember this information and they start the project with an uneasy feeling. Instead, it is advisable to share few and clear messages. In this way, creative flows also come across more strongly.
Neglecting implementation: A common mistake in kickoffs is to let the mind wander widely - and develop unrealistic ideas in the process. Particularly when ambition is high, goals quickly emerge that cannot be fulfilled in this way. Ergo, it is advisable to keep a sober view: A plan is only good if it can be executed well. Otherwise, euphoria is quickly followed by disappointment.
There are many other unfavourable design points and behaviours that you should avoid as much as possible in kickoff meetings. The most extensive is when the kickoff does not converge on a clear purpose and the participants do not feel they can make meaningful contributions.
Remedy this with the following:
- Clear purposes/goals that are also known to the participants
- A focus on results, e.g. through an agenda in questions
- Dialogue orientation and open questions for input
- An inclusive environment and diversity
- Working with feedback and incorporating this into the kickoff.
Checklist: What to think about for your kickoff meetings
We have now seen what exactly a kickoff meeting is, what its objectives should be, what the agenda could look like, and what to do and what not to do. Hopefully, you have now gained a clear picture for your kickoffs and how to make them successful.
The bottom line is that meetings are productive and purposeful precisely when they are well planned, have a firm structure and serve a clear purpose. To make this easier for you, we have developed a checklist for kickoff meetings. With its help, you will know what to think about. You can also check how well prepared you are for the meeting. Of course, the checklist can be adapted, shortened or supplemented.