Why hold annual kickoff meetings?

Why do we throw anniversary celebrations? Why have birthday parties? Why fool with any kind of festivities? You’re just on your way to becoming worm meat, after all. So what is the point? Uh, oh, I’m getting depressed.

We hold events—such as annual kickoff meetings—to mark special occasions because the day-to-day humdrum can create a ceaselessly plodding rhythm. When it comes to work, the daily grind can all become a blur. You walk into the office; hang up your jacket; check your email. The phone rings; you answer it. Someone asks a question; you respond. And so on and so forth, day after day, month after month, year after year. One day blends into another and this turns into months and years.

Back to the question
Why hold kickoff meetings? First, let’s define a “kickoff meeting.” Organizations usually hold kickoff meetings in the first month of a new year. These meetings take place over an hour or go for a day or more. People either physically attend the event or join in via video, webinar, and other media. Typically, though, all employees are involved, and the point is to—well—kick off the year.

Now, onto why have kickoff meetings. For one, they allow the entire organization to come together to intentionally launch the next 12 months. The New Year and opportunities can be outlined to all the members of the company’s community. Top management has the chance to give a presentation, emphasizing optimism about what is possible for the organization. All of this offers opportunity for the attendees to engage in real work around creating the year.

When I say “real work,” I mean it. We’re not talking about gathering the company and watching a movie or TV show. Kickoffs should be like a tough and exhilarating spin class, not like a leisurely walk on the beach. For a new year, a kickoff meeting is absolutely critical, and it is one of the best uses of company time and money. So what does this workout entail? Read on.

Stop the past, start the future—now

Kickoff meetings allow you and everyone involved to put the previous year behind. This is particularly useful if the previous year was difficult. If recent economic and financial times have impacted your company, it is important for the organization to recognize that, yes, it faced challenges—which possibly meant salary cuts, layoffs, and a sense that the survival of the company was at risk—but the past goes into the past. One of the best aspects of this exercise is that employees get to appreciate everything—good and bad—that happened during the past 12 months. This review brings completion to the year. Metaphorically, one season closes while the next season’s possibilities unfurl.

A future vision is essential
In addition to putting the past in perspective, the kickoff allows leadership to articulate and promote a three- to five- year time horizon. Leadership has an opportunity to relay the vision for the upcoming year in broad brushstrokes, generating organizational possibilities that are not drug-induced fantasies but real options that resonate with the organization. This future needs to compel employees with its possibility. The team should see that achieving this future goes beyond rehashing past accomplishments.

Kickoff meetings also meant to engage people. At one meeting, we rolled out a new set of corporate values and led exercises that allowed people to experience these values directly. One of the values was “integrity.” During the event, groups of employees were asked to watch a movie snippet in which a group of Jews interned in a German concentration camp during WWII clandestinely listened to a radio announcer (played by Robin Williams). The prisoners were dealing with horrific conditions, and deaths were common. The radio announcer outlined how help was coming and encouraged the prisoners to hang in there. These radio programs saved lives and gave the prisoners hope. They were also a complete lie, and the radio announcer knew it. Help was not coming. After watching the clip, participants were asked whether the radio announcer had integrity and why they felt that way. This was designed so participants got to experience and explore what “integrity” meant for themselves and others.

Get up and running
Departments can do a lot during kickoff meetings to build cohesion and momentum. To do this, we like to annoy the group with what I call “Stoopid Games” and other growth and development activities. These exercises foster good customer service, group performance, and strong relationships.

After playing some of these games departments can plan how to improve and grow in order to deliver on the company’s future. The departmental planning piece is typically facilitated by the department head. I have also seen key employees facilitate and serve as scribes.

Each department has the opportunity to review its own accomplishments and disappointments, similar to what the group did at the beginning of the session. In addition, now is a good time for each department to conduct a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats). The important ones are underlined for addressing in a future meeting.

Then, critical issues relating to the departments’ futures are outlined and reviewed. With the issues in front of the group, it’s now possible to design steps for resolving them and moving forward. Time permitting this may include setting the upcoming year’s department objectives, action plans, and first-quarter milestones.

So there you have it

Now let’s re-cap. Why kickoff business meetings?

1. They let you put the past in the past.
2. They let you create a company and organizational future to live into.
3. They provide an opportunity for departmental planning.
4. You can begin training and launch educational initiatives.
5. All this, along with Stoopid Games and other fun annoyances, build camaraderie and support. Such a deal!

So do it—hold a kickoff. Do it this year, because I promise the coming year will not be anything like last year. You can hold me to that.

Some final food for thought—there’s no need to limit your organization’s kickoff meetings to once a year. Quarterly kickoff planning meetings also work. Oh, my goodness … should I change the title of this article? Life is so complex. What to do? Just make sure you plan, hold kickoff sessions, and involve others. That is the bottom line.