Improve your project Management Practices - Conducting a Project Kickoff and Close

Not planning for success, is the same as planning to fail. 

In an earlier blog post I explored 5 measures of your project management maturity. You can refer to my blog post here.  

In this post we'll dive deep on the importance of a project kick-off and close.

If you're not conducting kick-off meetings you're missing an opportunity to set your projects up for success. If you're not conducting a project close meeting, you are missing a valuable opportunity to learn to apply lessons from every project that will make subsequent projects more mature. 

Pre-Meeting prep required? 

In keeping with the 80/20 rule. 80% of your project meetings should involve a kick-off and close. The kick-off meeting should involve the project manager(PM), the delivery team, and the stakeholder(s). In some cases, you can even run a prep meeting with just your internal team before involving the stakeholder. This can be a simple 15-minute review of the project to ensure the internal team is clear on the project approach so you appear better prepared once the stakeholder is attending. Alternatively, you could provide the required reading for the internal team before they join the kick-off call. Whether this shortcut works for you will depend largely on your level of preparation and your team's adherence to reading the materials. If your process maturity is low, you should probably stick to the pre-meeting method first, then graduate to the required reading approach later. 

Conducting a Kick-off Meeting 

Once the project scope of work (SOW) has been signed off, schedule the kick-off call with the client. Getting the kick-off scheduled quickly is the first indication to the stakeholder that you are organized and responsive. If it makes sense to conduct the meeting in-person than you can, but doing it over the web is generally just fine.  

As with any mature meeting, you will want to outline the agenda in the invite. Here are the primary topics you will want to cover in the kick-off. 

  1. Introductions 
  2. Review Scope 
  3. Review RACI 
  4. Reporting

1. Introductions 

It's important to give the team context to the project. As Simon Sinek famously says, "start with why." Why are we working on this project? Why has the client asked to engage in this project? Are there any specifics to the project that will be important to be aware of? Is the client doing the project to meet some regulatory requirement like HIPPA? Is this project the first step in preparing the company to implement a new ERP? These details matter because they give the team context to what the purpose of the project is. 

It's also important to introduce the team to the stakeholders of the project. There is some psychological safety in knowing the people involved in doing the work. After all, people do business with other people. Capitalize on this opportunity to drive home trust of the delivery team. Speak to their experience and success in delivering these sorts of projects in the past.  

2. Review Scope 

Reviewing the scope with the client is critical. Formalizing what work the project will include will give you a stronger position to defend the scope against creep. This is your opportunity to clearly state what the expectations of the project are. What is in scope, what is out of scope, when the project will start, when the project will end, and what the end state will look like. Low maturity project groups either don't have SOWs or they skip over reviewing the SOW in detail with the client. This creates a risk of having the client's opinion become the governing truth of a project.  If you find there is a lack of alignment on the scope, consider if the project can proceed or if the scope needs to be re-visited. In some cases, your team may have missed something that needs to be in scope. 

3. Review RACI 

RACI for those unfamiliar stands for: 

R-responsible

A-accountable

C-consulted

I-informed

Detail to the client and the team who is responsible for what deliverables. Also, outline who are the contact points between the teams. If there are multiple people or teams involved in the project it's important to clarify who is involved at what point in the project. For example, a technical staff member is responsible for provisioning servers and configuring the network switches. The project manager is accountable for the delivery of the project and the communication to all team members. The client’s internal IT team needs to be consulted to coordinate any change windows or outages to the network. The client stakeholder(s) need to be informed about the progress of the project or any roadblocks that are encountered through the course of the delivery. The RACI matrix will grow in complexity with the number of deliverables and number of participants of the project. Be as detailed as possible by assigning individual tasks to responsible team members. 

4. Reporting 

Reporting is a key component to any successful project. How often you report on the project, how you report to the team, and stakeholders will vary depending on the complexity and timeline of the project. As a general standard, I suggest starting with weekly reporting via a scheduled phone-call/web meeting. The trick to making this not a burden is getting everyone to agree that this will be a very fast meeting. It should take no longer than 10 minutes. Come prepared, if you're asking your team for an update with the client on the line you're wasting everyone's time. The implementation person should be reporting their work to the PM in a PM tool, or simply via email. The PM will report the status of the project simply as green, yellow, or red. If the project is not green, there needs to be a plan to get the project back on track. 

if you’re asking your team for an update with the client on the line you’re wasting everyone’s time.

As a part of the kick-off you can ask the client if they would prefer to just have a weekly email update instead of a status call, but as much as possible, stick with an actual meeting. Especially in the early phase of the project. The beginning of a project is always the riskiest. Scheduling conflicts, missing equipment, and other issues will more likely pop-up early. You want to make sure the team is well connected until the project is in full-motion.  

Conducting a Project Close 

Once the project has been completed and all the deliverables have been met, it is important to formally close the project. The kick-off clearly sets out a vision for what success looks like. The project wrap-up meeting measures the performance of your project against that vision. One of my favorite quotes is from Peter Drucker, "What gets measured gets managed." If you're not doing a project wrap-up you're missing a huge opportunity to improve your delivery by simply analyzing, "What went well?", "What needs improvement?" Here are the key components of a mature project wrap-up meeting. 

  1. Review completed deliverables 
  2. Have client formally agree to close the project 
  3. Request feedback on the project 
  4. Review budget performance 

1. Review Completed Deliverables 

In the kick-off, you detailed the project deliverables. To wrap the project, it is important to state that these are completed. You can also provide a tiny bit of color to each deliverable. Maybe noting a roadblock that was overcome. Also, if there were any scope changes that were made, especially additions to the scope, these should be highlighted. 

2. Has the Client Formally Agree to Close the Project? 

In kicking off the project we noted it was important to have the client agree to the scope and deliverables. At the end of the project, it is important to have the client agree that those deliverables have been accomplished. This could require the client to sign a document, acknowledge an email, or simply state that they agree the project is complete. One of the key reasons for this is to ensure your project team is protected from issues regarding scope and testing. Far too often I have seen situations where the client holds the project hostage by continuing to add small changes to the project. In some cases, the client will come back weeks or months later suggesting that something was missed and they need the project team to come back and add/fix something. Most often this is the result of poor testing on their part. If you have some formal documentation of the project being closed, you can at least have a stronger footing to add additional revenue for the work required.  

3. Request Feedback on The Project 

Asking someone for feedback can be tough. The majority of the time they will likely just tell you, "It was great." or "No problems." The truth is they may have some small grievances, but they also don't want to insult you. It helps to be much more specific in what you ask for. Instead of asking, "How did it go?" you could ask more targeted questions like,  

  • Did you feel like you were kept up to date on the progress of the project? 
  • Did you hear any concerns raised from your team? 
  • If we did this project again, what was one thing that would have made it a better experience for you? 

These types of specific questions will help to frame more constructive feedback. Be cognizant that the client may be uneasy about sharing negative feedback with you, especially if the delivery team is involved in the project close meeting. If you get an indication from the client that they have some concerns that they are not sharing, follow-up with them in a more private conversation. Cues that they are not being entirely honest will be things like, pausing or stammering when providing feedback. If in person there will be body-language cues like crossing arms or adjusting their position in the seat. 

4. Review Budget and Performance 

Unless there is a reason to share the fiscal performance of the project with the client, this step is likely an internal review. 

If nothing else, you should measure the performance of the project by the accuracy of the budgeted hours. If you expected the project to take 64 hours and you completed the work in 62 hours, awesome! If it took you 68 hours, you did okay. If your work effort is beyond a 10% variance, it's important that you understand why. When I build a project scope, I usually factor in a 10% variance to account for overrun on administrative time, and small issues. This is fair in fixed-fee projects especially. If you manage your scope well, you shouldn't overrun the budget with work that wasn't accounted for. If your variance consistently runs at 10-25%, you're leaving money on the table or running an unprofitable department. Top line revenue is great, but your business won't survive if you have no margin.  

As you mature your project management practices you can start to measure more specific goals, like variance hours on specific deliverables or tasks. Where you find variances, dig deeper. Understand why those variances occurred and develop processes to eliminate or at least mitigate those issues from recurring in future projects. The Project closure review should be a cold hard look at the performance of the project, don't convince yourself that problems were unavoidable or simply hope you'll do better next time. 

Set goals, measure performance, make plans for improvement, repeat.