Setting expectations and gaining alignment are critical to running any project smoothly. That sounds like a huge task but it doesn't have to be so difficult, and it can be fun! Project kickoff meetings provide an opportunity for teams to understand goals, set many expectations, discuss strategy, and get excited about a new project.
The thing is, there’s no single way of running a project kickoff. In this episode of Time Limit, Brett sits down with Kayla Keizer, project manager at Montreal-based digital design agency Plank. Kayla shares her unique experience and approach to creative kickoff meetings. Topics discussed include:
Kayla has been working as a Project Manager for more than 3 years. She loves how it combines relationship building, problem solving and analytical thinking. Kayla has always been enamored with the world of tech and has been using her PM skills for the past year at Plank, a digital design agency based in Montreal. This team has come to feel like home to her, and the work has allowed even more of her skills to flourish.
Kayla is positive and friendly, which makes her a natural when dealing with clients. She addresses concerns and handles whatever surfaces in a calm and reassuring way. She particularly enjoys seeing a project through with clients, from the very first phone call to the moment it goes live. Kayla is also a natural leader, making sure her team feels supported and engaged.
Brett Harned: Hey, welcome to Time Limit, the podcast where we talk about all things project management with PM experts. This week, I've invited Kayla Keizer from Plank Design in Montreal to join me to dig in on kickoff meetings.
So we all kick off new projects, right? But, what's the best way to do it? I asked Kayla to have this discussion with me because she'll be presenting a lightning talk on this topic at the 2020 Digital PM Summit, online this October.
Kayla works on website redesigns and apps, and her company has a really fresh approach on kickoffs. In fact, they call kickoffs "hack days" at Plank. It was really fun to dig in on how she plans and manages those meetings.
I think there's a lot of information that you'll get from this interview that will help you to rethink and level up your own kickoff meetings. Or, maybe you'll just get an inside view of how Plank works and get some amazing ideas on how they make amazing products for their clients. Check it out.
Kayla Keizer, thank you so much for joining me on Time Limit today. How are you doing?
Kayla Keizer: I'm doing good. Thank you for inviting me.
Brett Harned: Absolutely. I'm excited to have you here to talk about your topic for the Digital PM Summit, which is kind of about kickoff meetings. We're going to focus on kickoff meetings and we're going to get a little bit more into how you handle them at Plank.
But, I think this is a good topic because we're all kicking off projects all the time, right? But, I wonder if it might be a good idea for us to just start really high level. Can you tell us a little bit about what is a kickoff meeting and why are they used?
Kayla Keizer: Sure. A kickoff meeting is generally the first meeting between the project team and the client. And, it's used to have introductions between the two, a brief summary over the project, discuss high level scope and deliverables.
And also, the roles and responsibilities and briefly the project timeline. It's not a long meeting, it's usually an hour, maybe an hour and a half, depending how many people are there. But, that's quickly the basic step one.
Brett Harned: Cool. Yeah, it's kind of like a level setting meeting in some ways, right? Getting everyone on the same page.
Kayla Keizer: Exactly.
Brett Harned: Yeah. In my experience, working as a PM in agencies and also within house teams, I've done kickoff meetings in a variety of ways. From those one hour meetings to two day workshops and I think the way that you approach those meetings really depends on what you're working on and who you're working with.
But, part of me thinks that it comes down to determining the goal for the meeting, in order to guide you in the right direction for what that agenda should be. What do you see? And you, you kind of pointed out a little bit of this already, but what do you see as good goals to help you define what your kickoff meetings should be?
Kayla Keizer: One of the goals would definitely be making sure that everybody, as you said, is on the same level. So that everybody has the same understanding of why we're here and what the goal is of the project.
Brett Harned: Right.
Kayla Keizer: Very important that we all be on the same page with that. And also, I think understanding each person's role and how they're going to impact the project.
Brett Harned: Yeah, definitely. I mean, people ruin everything on projects, right? So getting that stuff out in the open early is pretty important.
Kayla Keizer: Yeah. And, if I could just talk a little bit about what makes Plank a little bit different is, one of our goals is going in and really understanding the client and who they are. So getting out of the spreadsheets and out of the tools and focusing on, "Okay, who are these people? What is their goal? What are they looking for outside of the scope and requirements? What's the goal or what are they looking for at the end of the project?"
And, understanding how they work and maybe everybody has bureaucracies or policies or certain stakeholders that they have to live with. And, my goal is always to understand that ecosystem, so I can better help them throughout the project process.
Brett Harned: Absolutely. Actually, can you tell us a little bit about Plank and the types of projects that you work on?
Kayla Keizer: We're a web design agency. We do websites, we do apps sometimes and we predominantly work with not for profit, as well as arts and culture. We also have a big entertainment section. We got our hands on a little bit of everything.
Brett Harned: Cool. Do you basically use the kickoff to refine goals or do you come to the kickoff with a scope that's already formed and then you're basically starting to dig into the goals and aligned with the stakeholders?
Kayla Keizer: So we get to the meeting and the high level scope is defined.
Brett Harned: Okay.
Kayla Keizer: We do the normal process of what a project kickoff is, but also what's different is I will narrow in on an activity or something that is ambiguous, that needs clarification. And, take advantage of the fact that we've got everybody in one room, let's really dive in and get to the bottom of this issue so that we don't have to spend weeks going back and forth through emails or Slack to get something understood or approved.
Brett Harned: Okay, cool. Yeah, I know when I worked at Happy Cog, which is another web agency, I loved the way that we handled kickoffs because we would get a scope, we would do an internal kickoff meeting with our team just to get everyone aligned on what was included in the scope. And, we'd talk about our process and an approach for that project specifically.
Then we would typically, before even doing a formal kickoff meeting, we'd probably have a call with the client just to introduce ourselves and get talking about first steps. But, we would do stakeholder interviews and sometimes user interviews and use the information that we gathered from those interviews and use them in the kickoff meeting as discussion points. These are kind of like the trending responses in this area. These are the goals that these groups of stakeholders are looking for.
And, use that information to really get information on the table and then have a discussion about it, but refine that information and basically start to get everyone aligned around what the goals of the project are. Which, I think is really exciting because if you don't have your goals settled, when you're coming out of the kickoff meeting, how can you possibly know what it is that you're really set out to do and be confident that you're on the right path?
Kayla Keizer: Yeah. And, that's huge because at the end of the day, whatever you're launching, you want to make sure that it goes back to those goals that you first discussed.
Brett Harned: Yeah. [crosstalk]
Kayla Keizer: Sometimes that [inaudible] a little lost, if you don't have those first conversations.
Brett Harned: Absolutely. That kind of leads me to my next question is I'm wondering once you have those goals established, is there anything that you do, a deliverable that you produce as the project manager or a conversation that you have that helps you to keep those goals at the forefront of the conversation around the project?
Kayla Keizer: That's a good question. I mean, I think I always go back to the goals. So whenever we're discussing something, a feature or we're at the end of an iteration or at the end of producing something and I'll always ask the team, "Okay, does it answer the goal that we set out to do?"
And so, I think that is how I keep focused on it, is just kind of always making sure and asking the team, "Is what we're producing, going back to our goals? Is it giving value?" That sort of thing.
Brett Harned: Yeah, that makes sense. It's just a conversation that you kind of have to remind everyone about, as the PM. And, it can be... I don't know if you feel this way, but you can start feeling a little bit like a broken record or like you're trying to play devil's advocate. But, it's really the best way to keep things on track, I think.
Kayla Keizer: Yeah, for sure. And, that's part of what the project manager's role is, is to keep the project team focused and making sure that we're all aligned on what we're doing. Right?
And, it's very easy sometimes to kind of go down a rabbit hole when you're building something.
Brett Harned: Right.
Kayla Keizer: And, forget the original goal or the original scope.
Brett Harned: Right.
Kayla Keizer: So like you said, it is a little bit of a broken record, but if not, then things can derail easily.
Brett Harned: Yeah, it's necessary. Well, let's talk for a couple of minutes about planning a kickoff because I'm sure there are plenty of folks out there who want some new ideas or want to even just do it for the first time. I'm curious, are you the person, in your agency, who's responsible for planning the kickoff?
Kayla Keizer: I would say I am responsible for planning the kickoff. Depending on what we've decided the goals of the kickoff are going to be, I'll usually have a designer. And, if we're talking about technical plans I'll make sure that our senior developer or developer is in the room with us, as well.
And so, when I go into planning, I do make sure that they're part of that process and that they know, "Okay, at this point in the day, this is when I'm going to ask my questions and be able to talk a bit about my role here in the project."
I think it's important to highlight that our kickoff usually lasts a whole day if we're doing it in person.
Brett Harned: Cool.
Kayla Keizer: So it's really important that we're all aligned and we have an agenda for the day and it's broken down and it's clear for everyone.
Brett Harned: Yeah.
Kayla Keizer: Living remote life, we've broken that down into different sessions just because a whole day doing Zoom meetings is a lot for some people.
Brett Harned: Yeah, that sounds like a nightmare.
Kayla Keizer: We usually break it down and do... In the half day we focus in on one to two activities and doing that remotely, we just break it up into different sessions.
But, we do it all within the same week. So it's a pretty heavy week, it's a pretty heavy day. But, every day there's an activity and something that needs to be discussed and zoomed in on.
Brett Harned: Well, it's cool to hear that you're finding alternative ways to get the work done in a kickoff, that you would do in person, and you're able to do it remotely. That's really important.
I'm wondering, what types of kind of activities or exercises are you doing? You don't have to tell us all, but just generally, what kind of stuff are you doing?
Kayla Keizer: We do a lot of redesign. We're taking websites that haven't been touched over 10 years and refreshing them. There's a lot of content restructuring that needs to happen, site map things that have to be discussed. And so, I usually like to start with that and it's a great discussion piece.
And everybody, especially if there's a website that has to show different departments, everybody wants to be front and center. So discussing the site map and getting all of the stakeholders opinions all at once and making those concrete decisions. This needs to go there, this is more important, we're going to put this maybe at the footer just because it's not as important as we thought it might be.
Those are the kinds of activities that I'm doing. Site map, either a content map, sometimes an empty map. It really depends on what problem or issue needs to be clarified.
Brett Harned: Okay. Yeah, that absolutely makes sense. It's kind of what I was getting at earlier too. We would have those conversations with stakeholders and we would form conversations around areas where there was clarity needed for our team or alignment needed, or even just where there were general questions around scope or focus or goals.
There's so many different exercises and things that you can do that I think can align stakeholders or clients to a team and actually have a little fun doing it. I think the thing that we're probably not communicating about that kickoff process is, they're collaborative and they're fun. It's less of a meeting and more of a workshop, right?
Kayla Keizer: Yeah.
Brett Harned: Especially, if you're doing a full day.
Kayla Keizer: Yeah. And, that's what's great about the full day is, because we're all in one room and usually there's whiteboards and there's a TV, we can connect and share screens. We can go up on the board and write out all of our ideas and kind of put everything together, collaboratively, everyone in the room.
That's definitely been a little bit more challenging being remote. But, thank goodness we have online whiteboards and it's still... At the end of the day, it's the discussions that matter.
Brett Harned: Right, definitely. I mentioned doing stakeholder interviews prior to a kickoff, what are the things that you need to know before planning a kickoff meeting or before walking into a room for a meeting?
Kayla Keizer: There is a lot of planning, as I'm sure you're familiar with. I make sure that the team that is going to be with me has reviewed the RFP, has reviewed the proposal, has already taken a look at the website or has taken a look at the requirements or the technical requirements. And, there's making sure that they're well versed on everything we know so far about the client. That can take a couple of days.
And also, it's not just the team that I prepare. We have a package that we do give to the client and we ask them, "Can you make sure to bring any relevant documents to the meeting?" So that we can have meaningful discussions around what you need to know from us, as well.
Brett Harned: Cool. Yeah, so you're giving everyone a amount of time to prepare themselves, to show up and make the meeting a success.
Kayla Keizer: Exactly.
Brett Harned: Do you think that typically everyone who's in the room has a really good sense for the scope of the project when you walk into a kickoff?
Kayla Keizer: Usually yes.
Brett Harned: Okay.
Kayla Keizer: I like to reiterate but usually everyone has a good idea. Prior to, I always ask the client, "Invite the stakeholders that are going to be the most impactful."
Brett Harned: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Kayla Keizer: But, I'm also aware sometimes we need to have a hack day that is more of a brainstorming session and gives the stakeholders a chance to give and share their ideas. So I also may ask the client, "What type of workshop are they looking to get out of this?"
Is this a workshop where we're really going to concretely say, "These are the things that we're doing or do you need to do a little bit more of everybody in a room brainstorming together so that everyone feels heard?" And then, from there decide what we can do. I think that...
Brett Harned: I like that.
Kayla Keizer: Yeah.
Brett Harned: So you're basically taking their personal preferences into account and not forcing this highly interactive, fun workshop on them if that's not their style.
Kayla Keizer: Yeah. And also, I've come across clients who have a lot of stakeholders and at the end of the day, there might be two really important people who are making the decisions. But, they still want to make sure that every department or every person is heard.
I think it's important to give that a chance, as well. Because, you want the project not to just correspond to one or two people in the organization, you want it to be a success for the organization, as well.
Brett Harned: Yeah. I remember I did a kickoff meeting and it was two full days of a workshop for a museum. And, we had a revolving door of stakeholders coming in and it was 60 people total. So it was this giant workshop with almost our whole agency and all of the leadership from and content development from across the museum.
Which, was really cool and it was a great way for us to... I mean, there was a lot of preparation going into that meeting and a lot of interviews and a lot of presentation for us. But, it was a great way to get everyone aligned, to get everyone informed about what the project was going to be, what the goals were going to be, how it was going to work, how they were going to interact with it.
And also, a chance to sit down and do some brainstorming together. And, the reason I thought of this is because you mentioned not everyone wanted to work the same way. And, I definitely remember some folks in those meetings just putting their pencil down and saying, "This is just not for me."
Kayla Keizer: Right.
Brett Harned: And, as the PM that freaks you out a little bit. Right? Because, you don't want to see somebody disengaged from your project so early.
Kayla Keizer: Right.
Brett Harned: But, at the same time, you have to let everyone just have their space and at least don't let them leave the room. But, at least witness what's happening and be a part of the conversation.
Kayla Keizer: Yeah. And, it's also a moment to understand who's on board, who's not on board right away instead of getting halfway through a project and a stakeholder pops up and I is like, "Wait a second, this wasn't what I was thinking."
Brett Harned: Yeah. You can basically pick out the difficult people on the spot in the kickoff meeting, if you're doing your job of just observing. Right?
Kayla Keizer: Exactly. And, I think going back to my original goal is, understanding how everybody is working and what their goals are and getting away from the spreadsheet stuff and really focusing in on the personalities involved and what their expectations are.
Brett Harned: Absolutely. To you, what makes a kickoff meeting successful?
Kayla Keizer: Hopefully, these are two teams they've never met or they've had preliminary conversations prior to. And so, my hope is that we get over the storming hump of a team and kind of normalize a little bit.
Understand everybody's rules, understand at some level how people are working, which is why I like to do an activity. Because, when everybody's working on something, you quickly establish who [inaudible] rules and personalities and how best to work with people.
And also, I always try to have some sort of takeaway. Either a site map or a content map or technical plans or outline the requirements, detailed, just making sure we end the day or end the week with something tangible.
Brett Harned: That makes sense and I'm sure that, that makes clients really happy too. To know that they worked with you toward producing something that will be used and is central to the project. That's a really good goal to have.
Are there any challenges or issues that you've experienced that you think that people should consider as they're looking at their kickoff process or even planning a kickoff meeting?
Kayla Keizer: That's a great question. I think one of the things that I've experienced as challenging is when stakeholders may not have a full concept. So they have an idea, this is what they want to do, but it's not 100% clear what kind of content it's going to be or we can build it, but the bread and money hasn't really been flushed out. So that I would say is definitely a challenge.
And, sometimes we have these preliminary kickoffs and we're discussing something that's still so high level and then we kind of have an idea of what we're doing and we go with it. But, then halfway through, because it was never really fully understood on the stakeholder side, we run into issues.
My advice is definitely asking the stakeholders, making sure that if there's anything that's ambiguous, don't talk about it until it's confirmed. Put it to the side, or assign someone to really kind of flush that out so that you don't have to change your mind halfway through kind of thing. That's one of the things that I've learned, is either pausing on the things that are ambiguous and revisiting when we have clearer information.
Brett Harned: Yeah. So basically, don't waste your time on things that you're not sure how they would be approached or that there's even a goal related to those things.
Kayla Keizer: Exactly.
Brett Harned: Focus on what you can execute on in the kickoff meeting.
Kayla Keizer: Exactly.
Brett Harned: How do you document what's been done in your kickoff? If you're doing a mixture of presentations and exercises, is there... You mentioned a deliverable, like a site map that might come out of the meeting. Are there also meeting notes or action items or things that come out of that meeting, as well?
Kayla Keizer: There's definitely meeting notes. I always have an agenda. So I send the agenda and I also have it there so people can put notes on the agenda if they need to. We also work with Trello. So I always, for each of our sessions or for the hack day, I'll have a card specifically for that, where we can put our notes, where we can put all of the assets or any kind of tangible item. We can all put it in that one card. And, that's how we document.
Brett Harned: Cool. You keep saying hack day. And, I'm just assuming that you call your kickoff meetings hack days at Plank. Is that right?
Kayla Keizer: Yes.
Brett Harned: Okay.
Kayla Keizer: Sorry.
Brett Harned: No, no, it's totally fine. It's cool to brand them on your own and make them your own experience. And, I would encourage anyone who's listening to do the same thing because then I think it makes it feel like more of a unique experience, that your team and your stakeholders can kind of bond over and talk about.
Because, at the end of the day, the kickoff meeting should be informative, but also fun and enjoyable and calling it a hack day, just kind of points you in that direction, I think.
Kayla Keizer: No, definitely. I agree. Traditionally, if possible we've even tried to mock things up quickly or code something quickly. So that's why we went with the hack day-esque terms, to kind of speak to that.
Brett Harned: Cool. I'm curious about, we talked at the very beginning a little bit about how the meeting helps you to set expectations. I'm wondering how you do that as it relates to process and communications in the kickoff. Do you make a presentation, are there slides, is there a discussion that you have in the kickoff meeting about those things?
Kayla Keizer: The kickoff meeting, I really focus in on the goals and the scope and deliverables and role and responsibilities. Usually, I'll have a separate meeting with the key person on the client side and I will go through the process with them. And so, I'll take that time to speak to that person and lay out how we're going to communicate. If it's going to be Slack, email, phone calls, run them through Trello.
Also, I'll walk them through the process of, "Okay, we're going to be doing the kickoff meeting, we're going to be doing a design phase, we're going to be doing the development phase." And, really going through the full process with them, so that they can own it. And then, on their team, they can inform whoever needs to be informed of the process because I've realized that not all stakeholders in the kickoff will be a part of the whole entire project process.
Brett Harned: Right.
Kayla Keizer: They're there to give their opinions or they're there they're at key moments through the process, but they don't want to be bogged down with all of the project process. So that's kind of why I take that part and sit down with the individuals. Specifically, so that they can make sure they're the most important person to understand the process and they can inform who they need to on their end.
Brett Harned: Yeah. I really like that approach. I think it's really important. Especially, when you're working as an agency with a client, it's important that the client have one key point of contact. One person who is responsible for almost managing the client side of the relationship and the project because if you don't have that person, things will fall apart really easily. And, communications will get really tricky. I've been in scenario and it's not fun.
Kayla Keizer: Agreed. Or when you're trying to coordinate with several people on it.
Brett Harned: Yeah. No thank you.
Kayla Keizer: [crosstalk]
Brett Harned: Yes, totally.
Kayla Keizer: Doable but messy.
Brett Harned: Doable but a real pain. And, you end up spending so much more time in the project that's not really necessary. You're wasting time on... Hours on scheduling and who wants to do that? That's no fun.
Kayla Keizer: Yeah. And, I think also a lot of the time the client doesn't realize that there's certain conversations that they can have without us and then come back and be like, "Okay, these decisions have been made. We're good. We don't need to dwell and debate."
Brett Harned: Right. Yeah, your job as the PM, isn't necessarily to wrangle all of their opinions and determine what a decision is. You'd rather have them make a decision and come back to you so your team can make progress.
Kayla Keizer: Yeah. I think we're there to provide insights and to provide strategy and best practices and help guide whatever decision needs to be made. But, at the end of the day, it is their project. It is their site. They have to live with it.
Brett Harned: Absolutely.
Kayla Keizer: There are decisions that they need to make and that we can help, but they have to own.
Brett Harned: Yep. Okay, I'm coming up on our last question and I've been asking a question that's kind of tied to the theme of the show, which is time limit. So it's nodding to the fact that we're all busy, we're all trying to get our best work done with limited time and limited resources. I'm sure that you've been there as a PM, I certainly have.
I'm not sure if you've been in a situation where projects get rushed. I've been in client project situations where the deadline is so tight and we just have to skip the kickoff or the kickoff gets cut shorter than we're used to. And, you're wondering if you're missing out on something but you don't have time to think about it.
I'm wondering, in that case, if things have to get cut short, are there things that you'd recommend a PM must definitely discuss and document, to make sure that things are on the right track as they move into execution?
Kayla Keizer: Yeah. I think expectations and goals and scope and deliverables definitely need to be discussed. I can say that even on rush projects, I always try to make time for a kickoff. Maybe we don't do the activities and diving deep because I'm assuming that those conversations have already happened or that there's less ambiguity.
Brett Harned: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Kayla Keizer: But, I definitely would make sure to have that leveling because I don't see how, even in rush projects, you need to have a leveling between both teams.
Brett Harned: Yeah. So it's like, no matter what, those are things that you at least have to get out on the table, have everyone acknowledge and essentially confirm and move on.
Kayla Keizer: Yeah. And, for those who are resisting, my argument is always, the development process will go so much faster if all of these conversations are done ahead of time. When we're diving in kind of blindly, it leaves a lot of room to make mistakes.
Brett Harned: Right. Yeah, it all comes down to confidence, right? Knowing that stuff makes you confident in the fact that you'll deliver something that will be a good solution and the project will be successful.
Kayla Keizer: Yeah.
Brett Harned: Awesome.
Kayla Keizer: Totally.
Brett Harned: Well, this has been really great. I think we've definitely covered kickoffs in depth. Sounds like you've got tons of experience on them and it would be fun to sit in on one of those kickoff meetings someday, who knows.
But, thank you so much for joining me. And, I hope to talk to you again soon and definitely see you at the Digital PM Summit, which will be online. But, you're still going to be speaking, so I can't wait to see that.
Kayla Keizer: Yeah, no, I'm excited to speak and I'm excited to be a part of the digital online process.
Brett Harned: Thanks so much, Kayla.
Kayla Keizer: Thank you.
Brett Harned: Okay, that was a fun interview. I love sharing and comparing processes and stories, the way that we did. I hope you came away with a new idea or a tactic to implement with your team. Or, maybe even a question to follow up, feel free to reach out to me if that's the case.
If you want to learn more about kickoffs and other tactics surrounding setting and managing expectations, you should also check out our free online classes at teamgantt.com. This is definitely a topic that I cover pretty often.
Also, if you liked this episode and you want to hear more, please review our podcast wherever you listen to your podcasts. Doing that will help us to attract more great guests, just like Kayla.
All right folks, that's it for this episode. Come back for episode 36, where we're going to dig into agency project management.