The essential purpose of a project kick-off meeting is to make sure that everyone on the delivery team understands what is required of them, both as individuals and a team.
Project kick-off meetings are a standard feature in industries and sectors with well-developed levels of project maturity. Thinking of sectors, I’d expect to see consistent use of project kick-off meetings in well run law firm I.T departments for example.
When it comes to managing legal matters though, project kick-off meetings tend to be the exception rather than the rule. This is a pity because properly run kick-off meetings often help lay the foundations for successful project delivery.
Why kick-off meetings are under used in legal projects
There are a few reasons why project kick-off meetings are under-used in the context of legal project management:
- Legal project managers are often brought in to help manage a matter after – sometimes considerably after – matter (project) inception. Hence calling a kick-off meeting after a matter is well and truly underway can feel like applying a brake on matter progress. Few people are willing to do this (although often, applying a brake so that proper planning can be done is just what is needed – see below).
- A closely related point is that a kick-off meeting is perceived as an overhead and a hindrance to the legal team which just wants to ‘get things done’.
- As kick-off meetings tend not to happen in the context of legal service delivery, calling them feels like going against the cultural norm. I suspect that many legal project managers feel uncomfortable doing this, so they appear content to play the ‘project catch-up game’ (see item 1 above).
- As kick-off meetings tend not to happen in legal service delivery projects many people are unsure how to run them and how to contribute effectively to them.
This post will show how to prepare for effective legal project kick-off meetings and, it is hoped, encourage more kick-off meetings to take place in legal service delivery projects.
Reality check: kick-off meetings in context
I am not suggesting that kick-off meetings must happen in the early stages of every legal matter. Clearly there are many matter types which are conducted by individual lawyers and so there is no legal delivery team required – matter types such as will-drafting and conveyancing come to mind.
What I suggest to my consultancy clients and course trainees is they develop their matter risk assessment analysis and then apply the most appropriate level of project management control around each matter.
As a baseline starting point, common-sense suggests that matters requiring three fee earners to do an appreciable amount of work must be relatively complex requiring a team effort. Generally, therefore, matters of this size and complexity (and above) should be good candidates for the completion of a Project Initiation Document (PID) and a kick-off meeting.
When should the kick-off meeting take place?
Early in the project, but not too early as to make the meeting an unwieldy fact gathering exercise. As noted above, if the kick-off meeting is designed to confirm (or perhaps develop aspects of) the PID, then progress with PID completion should help guide the timing of the kick-off meeting.
In other industries as well as legal, project managers can be asked to manage a project after it has got underway. So project managers must step-in, review the work done to date and then call a kick-off meeting to confirm that effort is now being corralled properly as part of ‘a project’.
As noted earlier there appears to be less willingness to call what might be described as late kick-off meetings in legal services, probably reflecting lesser project maturity in legal service delivery compared to other sectors. I am glad to say this is changing. There is much greater awareness of the benefits of legal project management compared to, say, five years ago. With this in mind, I encourage legal project managers to display greater willingness to exert project control even if it sometimes feels ‘after the event’.
Research for the kick-off meeting
Another way of looking at kick-off meetings is that they can be designed to confirm and perhaps develop contents of the PID. While preparing the PID legal project managers will conduct research and hold informal discussions with team members to understand and agree things such as project scope, key deliverables and an outline schedule (timeline) for delivery.
This research can be used to help inform content of, and approach to, the kick-off meeting.
Who should attend the kick-off meeting?
One way of thinking about who should attend kick-off meetings is to keep focus on operational delivery issues. People who will be playing an active part in substantive operational delivery must be there.
Others, who will have less day-to-day involvement in operational delivery need not attend, but they will need to be kept informed about meeting outcomes (most obviously by receiving meeting minutes).
Items to consider during kick-off meetings
Typical kick-off meeting agenda items tend to include:
- Background and scene-setting
- Project Objectives
- Project Scope and Exclusions
- Project Resource Outline
- Project Constraints
- Key Deliverables
- Key Tasks (work required to deliver the above)
- Dependencies between key deliverables
- Major Milestones
- High-level Schedule (timeline)
- Project Communications and Reporting
- Risk Assessment
- Project Sign-Off criteria (what successful completion looks like from the client’s point of view)
- Project Governance
- Team Behaviours
A lengthy list. I will not go through each item, but I would like to say a few words about the last item, Team Behaviours.
This is a flag for legal project managers to gently remind the team about how to be effective and trusted team members. Essentially this is a reminder to the team about their ethical responsibilities and behaviours. Things like showing respect for other team members by turning up for meetings on time, preparing in advance and contributing positively. Other behaviours too such as being open, honest and transparent with the rest of the delivery team.
All this may sound trite, and some readers will be thinking ‘do you really need to say this to legal service professionals?’. In my experience, yes you do. Part of a legal project managers role is to lead by setting the right team culture. Of course, this requires the legal project managers to behave in an ethical, open and transparent way too and not simply state this is required of others.
Avoid meeting overrun
To help avoid meeting overrun I indicate the amount of time I expect the meeting will devote to each agenda item. I can’t say this works 100% of the time, but it does at least set expectations. It certainly works better than having no indication of item timing at all.
Meetings where real work gets done
Given that kick-off meetings occur quite early in the matter there will inevitably be some uncertainty surrounding some operational issues. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Managed properly this can allow the legal project manager to turn the meeting into something much more productive and memorable. Yes, a memorable project meeting!
I will write more about this next time.
Meanwhile you may like to note that I cover productive project meetings of all kinds as part of my legal project management training courses, which are listed here.