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Friends, Romans, Countrymen: Lend Me Your Rears

Gal_1953_julius_caesar_2It's a scary thing to hold a project kick-off meeting.  You have a lot to accomplish in a very short period of time.  You have to introduce team members, make people aware of the scope and purpose of the project, and build enthusiasm.  Jeff Lash of Good Product Manager says that this meeting is the differentiator between good project managers and bad project managers, and I wholeheartedly agree.  There's a reason why the "kickoff" analogy from football is used.  Imagine the ref tossing the ol' pigskin in the middle of 22 guys and simply saying "Have at it, boys!"  (I think it was tried once; the XFL lasted only one season before cancellation.)

However, the scariest part of the kick-off is when your executive stands up to speak.  As a project manager, I know that these few words are a make-or-break moment.  This executive has to express his or her knowledge of the project, why it is important for success, level of enthusiasm, and why everyone's butts are on the line... and generate enough of an attitude adjustment in the meeting participants to get the project off on the right foot.  (Oh yeah, and it has to be a believable performance.)  That's one tall order.  After all, think of the damage Marc Antony accomplished by his word choice at Julius Caesar's funeral (a la Shakespeare, of course)... and he technically was following Brutus' orders to the letter of the law.

How can you pull off an executive state-of-the-project speech that will have them laughing and crying and cheering (all at the right times)?  For starters, you had better make sure that the kickoff (or right before) is not your FIRST interaction with your executive sponsor.  If it is, you may want to have the resume updated.  Sponsorship is not a role that can be "phoned in."  Assuming that your executive is already engaged in the project and communicating with you, here are some things to think about before you hand them the microphone and brace yourself for an evening at the Improv:

  1. Interrogate Them For Knowledge - Can your executive tell you what the project is about, at least in laymen's terms?  Make sure your sponsor understands the scope and the purpose of the project and can explain it to other executives in an elevator trip or restroom break.
  2. Test Them for Buy-In - Make sure your sponsor not only knows what the project is about and why it's important; they need to believe it.  They need to be "shouting from the rooftops" excited about this project (or scared to death if it doesn't happen).  I want to see their skin in the game, too.
  3. Quiz Them for Understanding - Do they know who their stakeholders are and why each one has a part in the project?  Do they understand the office politics surrounding this project?  If they poo-poo the politics, that is a big red flag for you.
  4. Rehearse - If this is a big enough project, then the sponsor is not allowed to "just wing it" at the kick-off meeting.  Do a dry run with him or her one-on-one.  Bring in a "trusted somebody" who generally sees things differently than you do to ensure that the message will be embraced across the board.  Inserting the appropriate story can do wonders to build credibility, if it is delivered well and is relevant to the cause.

While there will always be the "loose cannon" sponsor, the goal is to leverage an already healthy relationship to ensure that the first formal message is delivered on target.

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