By Barry Hodge, Project Manager
It is well known that the majority of projects fail, but I have found on my projects that getting them off to a good start increases the chance of them being a success. To make sure your project starts well, there are some small things to do before the project kickoff meeting. In this article, I will show you what I do as soon as I am assigned as the project manager. If you do this, I guarantee that your projects will get off to a great start.
It is 9 a.m., and you have arrived at the office. As you are about to sit at your desk, you notice a Post-It Note stuck to your computer.
Upon closer inspection, you see that it is from your boss; you have a new project for one of the company bosses. Great, you think, on top of everything else. And a Post-It Note is all you have to start the project!
(This is not the best way to find out that you have a project, but unfortunately, this is based on a true story.)
So what can you do to get this poorly started project moving in the right direction? There are five steps to take before the project kick off meeting that will get your project off to a great start.
Step 1: Make an Appointment With the Project Sponsor
Your first step is to find out as much information about why there is a need for the project—and you need more to go on than a Post-It Note! Open up your calendar to make an appointment to see the person who has requested the project, the sponsor. In this case, it is one of the company bosses.
If you are struggling to find a slot within the next couple of days, you need to call them up and request a time to see them. Or even better, if they have an assistant who runs their calendar, speak to him or her. It is amazing how assistants are able to find time in calendars that look packed full. Explain that you would like to meet to discuss the new project to understand why they want this project. If they really want the project, they will make time to speak to you.
Step 2: Prepare Three Questions
Next, you need to prepare the questions that you will want to ask the company executive about the project. After all, they have a lot of demands on their time, so you want to make the most out of the time that you have with them. They are not going to take too kindly if you have not taken the time to prepare. You will likely get a blunt response if you keep asking for more of their time. You will get a response like, “Get on with it and let me know when the project is complete.” This will cause them to disengage in the project right from the start, give you problems later on, and risk the project not being a success.
So what questions do you need to ask when you meet the company executive? The aim when I am asking these questions is to establish why the executive wants the project. I want to find out what the executive has in mind for the final thing that the project will deliver. The other important thing I want to find out is who on their team I can work with on a day-to-day basis if I have any questions.
The problem most executives have is they are very time poor, and they will not have the time to work on the project. If you have a query or want someone to test something, the executive will not have the time to do that. You need them to appoint someone to act on their behalf to make decisions about the project.
I call these people project champions. They are likely to be part of the executive’s team so they will have better access to them than you do. If you have any questions or need the executive to make a decision, then the champion should be able to get an answer.
Step 3: Ask Three Questions
Amongst the many queries you likely want to put forward to the executive should be three crucial questions. These three questions should only take around 15 minutes of their time.
By doing this, you have already gotten your project off to a better start than most other projects. The three questions to ask are:
What is the problem that the project should address? You want to establish why the project exists in a high-level statement with not too much detail. If it is an opportunity that the organisation wants to take advantage of, then write down why it is not currently able to do so.
What would a successful outcome look like? This is a great question to ask at the start of the project. If they have seen something somewhere else, such as at a conference, they may have a particular idea in mind. For example, imagine your project developed a new website about your company. Then, at the end of the project, you find out that the executive wanted a phone app. If their solution is not possible, then later on, you can present something else that is more suitable. For now, you’re just trying to understand what they want.
Who in your team can I work with on a day-to-day basis to develop this project? Don’t leave this meeting without getting a project champion. Also find out if the champion knows about the project. If he or she doesn’t, commit the executive to notify him or her.
Step 4: Say Thank You
Once you have finished the meeting and have gotten back to your desk, the fourth step is to email the executive. Start the email by thanking them for their time and that you found it very helpful. In the email, confirm what you understand to be the problem that the project addresses. Then detail the successful outcome and who the project champion will be. If you have not gotten it quite right, then it gives the executive chance to correct you.
When you send the email to the executive, make sure that you copy in the project champion. By copying in the champion, it will notify them that they are the project champion, if they did not know already. Also it will make sure that the champion knows what problem the project will fix. This will stop the champion from taking the project off in a different direction, as this will only cause you problems later on down the line.
Step 5: Talk to the Champion
The fifth and final step is to find your champion and start to develop a relationship with them that is going to help the project get going. The relationship with the project champion is more informal than with the executive. The champion is someone who will work with you on a day-to-day basis about the project. You need to make sure that you keep the champion on your side throughout the project. The project champion is likely to have the ear of the executive and ask the champion for their opinion. Having the champion on your side will help when the executive needs to make a decision.
When you meet the champion for the first time, you want to have an informal discussion. Grab a coffee, a comfy chair, and have a chat with the champion.
The purpose of the chat is to understand the pressures that the champion faces:
How busy are they?
Do they have the time to dedicate to your project?
Is this one of hundreds of projects that they have?
Do they have any time sensitive tasks that you need to work on over the lifecycle of the project?
Chances are, your project champion will have a day job to do as well. While you will not need them all the time it is good to explain how much time you will need from them and when. Knowing when you are unlikely to get hold of the champion will also help with your project.
If it becomes clear that they do not have the time for the project, you need to raise this with the executive. Sometimes people will be reluctant to tell their boss that they do not have the time, but you can and should bring this question to the fore, since it is your responsibility to do everything you can to reduce risk to the project.
In this case, you should also make the champion aware that in a couple of days you will raise it with the executive that they do not have enough time. This will make sure that the champion speaks to the executive as they will want to tell them before you do. This will make sure your risk is being addressed.
Ideally, you want the executive to give the champion more time to work on the project by assigning tasks to other people. If this is not possible, the executive may appoint a new champion.
Once you’ve established that the champion has the time to work on the project, confirm with them what the problem is. Then move on to what a successful outcome looks like. To do this go through the email you sent to the executive and see if they agree.
If they do not agree, ask them to explain why. You need to make sure they do agree before the project kickoff meeting. If they are not in agreement, then you will need to hold a second meeting with the executive and the champion. The aim of that meeting is to make sure the champion and executive agree. Once they agree, it is time to schedule a project kickoff meeting with the other project team members.
So there you have it. In five short steps, you can boost your project’s chances of success far above the average. You can establish good relationships with the project sponsor and the project champion. You can clarify project requirements and objectives. Which is waaay better than the Post-It Note.
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