Project kickoff meetings – how to do them right

04.09.2021insights, Resources, Tips

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Project kickoff meetings are one of the most important tools in my publication design toolbox. They’re the best way to get me what I need to deliver a great design and get everyone on the same page around timeline, reviews, communications, and general expectations – generally set ourselves up for success. Here’s how to do them right.

We recently did our first large scale home renovation project, and whew, there was a steep learning curve! But one thing that I did realize was that all my years of project management had equipped me with some skills that a lot of people don’t have heading into home projects. One of the most important cross-overs was the project kickoff meeting.

After getting all our quotes lined up and the plans in place, we called our selected contractors together for a kickoff meeting. I’m sure they thought I was full of it when I asked them to come in – their part of the project was still weeks away! But we did it anyways. We introduced those who didn’t know each other, and used our windows (the one surface that wasn’t getting painted or fixed) to note down contact numbers and draw up a calendar that everyone could agree on.

Now, it certainly wasn’t a silver bullet. It didn’t make everything run perfectly or avoid all delays. But it started us out on the right footing – reminded everyone that their work had a direct impact on others’ timelines, and set the expectation in terms of communication of any delays or problems that were bound to creep up.

I took this practice straight out of my work with clients. A large part of my work is project based, meaning that I’m brought on to a team for a specific piece of work. Even when I’m doing a similar job – publication design – each project and client has its own quirks. I find that one of the best ways to get everyone on the same page is to hold a project kickoff – or launch – meeting.

What do you talk about in a kickoff meeting?

With a new client, a publication design kickoff meeting would go through things like:

  • Introductions and roles – I ask the client to give me an overview of everyone that will be working on the project in some way, and some insight into what their roles will be in the process (content review, final yes/no, etc.)
  • Branding – how are we going to brand the publication? Is it an in-house publication, meaning branded in just their style? Or are there partners involved? Is it for one of their clients – for example, perhaps it’s a publication for a donor project that needs to be branded in the donor’s style? Or is it a unique campaign or sub-brand that needs its own style? I ask them to share any style guides they have that might help me creating their publication.
  • Audience – who is this publication for? is this the same audience that they usually write for, or are there differences that might mean a deviation from their usual tone? This helps me to get a sense of the style and tone of the publication so I can make appropriate suggestions.
  • Length – while I already have a general idea of this, we revisit the assumptions we’ve made and I help the team to translate the final publication length into how much written and visual content that can usually include. We talk about white space, making sure the flow works well, page guidelines for print publications – I find that most clients are actually surprised by how many designed pages their dense Word docs will translate into! (Hence the reason I love being brought in before the writing process starts when possible – knowing this info up front can be really helpful).
  • Imagery – do they imagine the publication will include photos, graphic elements, data visualizations or illustrations? What resources do they have available already (an image library, for example)? Do we need to try and source images from free or paid stock sites? Do they need to engage a photographer or ask their staff to curate some specific images for us to use?
  • Review process – we go through in considerable detail what the ideal review process would look like – who would be involved when, what they will be reviewing for, etc. I remind them of my practice of two rounds of revisions, and ask them to appoint someone from their side to marshall all the input from their team for each round – this really helps streamline things. If they don’t have a proofreader they use I can suggest someone – it’s an important step in the review that a lot of organizations miss.
  • Timeline – I usually already have a good idea about this from our initial conversations, but we revisit this to make sure we’re all on the same page. I will mock up a draft timeline starting from any external, hard deadlines (board meeting or conference where they want to present their publication, for example) and work backwards from there. We’ll talk through the steps and make sure it works well for everyone, tweaking as necessary. This is what will guide the next steps of the process. (Sometimes we have
  • Communication – while I have my own systems that I like to use in my business, I’m often times slotting in to a larger team that has established ways of working. Do they use Teams? They should invite me as a guest to their Team room. Google Drive? Dropbox? Share a link to a folder. Prefer just to email and WeTransfer files? That’s fine too. The important thing is just to make clear what the expectations are. We also talk about turnaround times and progress reports (for longer projects). I’m often working with clients across a number of time zones so I share when my preferred meeting times are.

I also go through some of the nuts and bolts of working together – contracts, how they can reach me, when I’m available at my desk, navigating time zones, admin and finance considerations, etc. These details are great to get out of the way up front so there are no lingering issues to deal with.

Remote kickoff and the right people in the room

Since I work remotely with nearly all of my clients (and because COVID), nearly all of these meetings are held online. And they work just as well (if not better than!) in-person meetings. LIke all good meetings, we start with a clear agenda that we can move through, and I follow up with action points and agreed upon timelines. And we keep it as brief as possible – no need for a long drawn out process.

You do need to make sure to have all the right people in the room for these to be as effective as possible. There’s no use speaking only with a junior manager about timeline or audience when it’s someone up the food chain who actually makes those decisions. Moving ahead without them will just guarantee that there will be a monkey wrench thrown into the process at some point. At a minimum, follow up with detailed notes just after the meeting and make sure to get in writing that the decision-maker is happy with the outcomes of the discussion.

Project kickoff meetings with existing clients

When I’m working with a new client, project kickoff meetings are essential, but even when I’m working with an existing client on a new project they’re important. These can be super brief as you’ll likely already know a lot of the information, but they’re great to organize to make sure everyone is still on the same page. Things shift and change – there might be new people in the mix, or we’re speaking to a different audience segment. Sometimes they’re just chance to revisit what you’ve done in the past and see how you might improve on it or mix things up a bit. You don’t want things to get stale!


Over to you:

If kickoff meetings aren’t already a part of your project workflow, schedule one for your team today!

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