I’ve said it before: Communication is the key which drives all the other critical success factors for client project management. Only through effective communication can project teams align with clients and business leaders to build and nurture trusting relationships with all stakeholders.

How many times have you heard this?

“Oh, if only I had been involved, I would have explained that to you sooner/told you that idea would never work/made everything right in the universe.”

According to Kevin M. Hoffman in the User Interface Engineering reprint of his article, Kick Ass Kickoff Meetings: By dubbing the first core team meeting the “project kickoff,” you are creating a project history that gives the impression that decisions are being made before everyone in the larger group has a chance to make their voice heard. So don’t do that. Call that meeting the “pre-kickoff meeting,” or the “kickoff planning meeting.” Sure, start by meeting with trusted colleagues on the client side, but save the name “kickoff” for a much more robust experience. Have a process that allows everyone to have their say before the project starts, and take a little time to research and explore the problem at hand from your client’s/partner’s perspective during that gap.

One of my critical success factors for building a reputation as a trusted product/project manager is to manage the expectations of all stakeholders. To manage satisfaction, you must carefully manage your client’s expectations. To do this, you must be networked throughout both your own organization and your client’s organization. Also, you need to provide all stakeholders every opportunity to speak up and ask questions throughout the entire project life cycle, starting before the official project “kickoff meeting.” If no one is asking questions, or you don’t provide that opportunity up front, you can’t assume everything is perfect or everyone is on board. Often, someone will hold out asking the important question until late in the game, and you’ll wish they had asked sooner. Client project teams must be a consistent presence both internally (within their own organizations) and externally (within the client organization), and must initiate frequent two-way communication.

Hoffman reminds us that everyone’s a stakeholder. Expanding the list of qualified stakeholders as much as possible increases the likelihood that you will go into a kickoff meeting with a more accurate range of all the miracles this project will achieve, he says. More traditional approaches to defining a list of stakeholders focus on the departments directly responsible for what you are building, or that special group of people who have the ability to fire you. This ends up with information gleaned from director-level folks, vice presidents, etc. But you should talk to lower-level managers, line staff, and even building maintenance personnel if relevant. Anyone with a relationship to your project, no matter how tangential, will have insight into organizational culture. And by expanding the guest list, you are building a better understanding of the problem at hand, and engendering project awareness and trust throughout the organization. I agree with Hoffman that “Projects have their own cultures, just like organizations. The sooner you take an active role in building that culture to complement the organizational one, the happier everyone will be.”

Start Building Relationships Before the Kickoff

Use pre-kickoff stakeholder interviews to break the ice in a more natural, one-on-one or small group conversation. Then ask some questions that will reveal specific, personal hopes and fears for the project—the more brutally honest the interviewees are, the better. Assure them that certain questions are “off the record,” and then get them to really explore the relationship between the organizational culture and their project expectations. Who is the one person that will make this project a success, and who is the greatest challenge? If this is a redesign, what worked the last time they tried to do this, and what didn’t? Questions like these reveal pain points which kickoff activities can confront directly.

Here are a few specific examples of questions we ask and why we ask them, says Hoffman.

  • What is the one thing we must get right to make this project worth undertaking?
  • How does this/your organization define success? What is the role of this project in achieving that success?
  • What aspects of the internal culture or external environment could put this project at risk to fail?
  • Assuming we mitigate that risk, what would exceed your wildest dreams?

In addition to these questions, in his book Flawless Consulting, Peter Block suggests asking questions such as these to get a good picture of the culture around the project:

  • What kinds of questions do you think I should ask [stakeholders] to get a feel for what is going on around here?
  • What ideas have been supported by people but have not gotten enough support?
  • What would you recommend if you were in my position?
  • How hopeful are you about making real progress on this problem/project? What obstacles do you see to our final proposal/project recommendations being accepted?

Armed with the answers to questions such as these before the client project kickoff meeting, and by involving various levels of stakeholders up front before the project kicks off, you will be prepared for a much more robust project initiation meeting. You will also have established the necessary relationships with all project stakeholders and will have set the course for open, ongoing communication with those stakeholders throughout the project. Don’t forget to include all of these stakeholders in the project kickoff (or at least follow up with them soon afterwards) and also include them in any project feedback sessions. By following these suggestions, you can properly set the stage at the official project “kickoff” meeting and ultimately be able to prepare all stakeholders for “no surprises” when you later present your final proposal for the project.