November 7, 2013
Before we start any project, we host a thorough discovery process. This typically begins with days, and I mean days, of densely packed kickoff meetings. The nature of our business, building websites for higher education institutions and cultural institutions, means we have to hear and represent the voices of many vastly different groups.
However, the reason for all of these meetings is the same—to get the people involved to start having productive conversations about the needs the website has to meet. This means the needs of the website users and the needs of the individuals who are going to be represented by the site—who will be contributing to it, and relying on it to act as their presence on the web.
We also use this time as a way to share our process, and let team members know what they can expect from the project. We explain how we work, when they will receive deliverables, when they will be responsible for providing feedback, what is in scope, and what things are outside of scope (clarifying this last one can be a huge time and budget saver).
Our years of experience hosting kickoffs have taught us a lot of valuable things, but these lessons were not learned without some bumps and hiccups along the way. I have comprised my own list of dos and don'ts for running successful kickoff meetings.
Limit the amount of participants.
Keep groups reasonably small (ten participants is an ideal size) and try to curate groups of people that have shared goals.
Have a specific agenda set for each meeting.
Use questions to frame the agenda. If you are meeting with a group of faculty, don't title the meeting “Faculty Website Meeting.” Title it something that gets the participants thinking before they even step in the door like “How to Make a Better Department Page.”
Talk to the decision makers first.
If you are conducting multiple meetings with disparate groups, meet with the key stakeholders first. Stakeholders can help you assess what items will be most productive for discussion in the meetings to come. Likewise, they can help you avoid topics and points that can become black holes. This could be any red flags that might derail the conversation from where you need it to be, preventing you from focusing on what is within the goals and scope for your project.
Do thorough introductions.
Find out who all meeting participants are, and what their day-to-day role and level of involvement in the project is. Be sure to also find out who they interact with in order to get their job done. You can't follow everyone around for a full day, but try to find out what their day-to-day workflow is really like.
Start with a tough and thought provoking question.
Often starting an interview—which let's face it, much of a discovery kickoff is—with a curt and probing question first, can better open up the channels of communication for the remainder of the discussion. By starting the conversation in a frank way, you are opening up the group to give more honest and open answers for the remaining follow-up questions.
Have someone record the meeting in a way that is visible to the group.
Pick a silent observer to jot down discussed topics onto a giant note pad or white board. Not only will this help the group as a whole keep track of the discussion, it will also be a great way to move on from a point that is potentially sucking valuable time away from your kickoff meeting. “Okay, we have that written down. What else?” This will ensure that once a point gets added to the board, the group can move on and you are no longer stuck on a bad topic.
Get participants to make quick sketches of necessary content hierarchy or functionality.
The key words here are “quick” (set time limits) and “sketches” (plural). Multiple iterations are imperative. They will prevent participants from investing a lot of time and effort into their first idea.
Have the group brainstorm a list of words that describe them as well as a list of words that they are not. Often what you are not is just a differentiating as what you are.
Get a clear sense of importance.
When key concepts or keywords are brainstormed, spend some time with the group numbering or placing the words and concepts in order from most to least important. You can even limit the amount of brainstormed words the group gets to keep to 3 to 5. By doing this you will ensure that only the most important items make it to the final list. Post-It Notes can make an exercise like this easy to manage and provide a hands-on experience to the participants.
Focus on the needs of the target audience.
Spend a majority of time focusing on the client's target audience: who they are, what they need, and what their likely use case scenarios are. They are the reason you are all there, after all.
Keep your participants happy.
Make sure to provide snacks and beverages to keep all participants alive and the sounds of hungry, tummy grumblings to a minimum.
Make sure everyone who has something to say gets to say it.
Always allow for a time period at the end of each meeting for attendees to ask questions or get any nagging items off of their chests.
Recap what has been said.
Summarize the key points that were made at the end of each meeting.
Use the “Five Whys” when necessary.
When someone expresses a concern, run through the “Five Whys” exercise. If you follow Fastspot, you probably know how big of fans we are of the “Five Whys.” You simply need to ask “why” to each answer you get, in succession, (you guessed it) five times. This exercise can often lead you to the root of a problem, and can help people that are very wrapped up in their own daily minutia see things from a different perspective.
Do not talk about design directions or what the meeting attendees like.
These meetings are about figuring what the client needs, not what color they like. You are there to figure out how to best meet the established business goals, not to accommodate any single person's visual preferences.
Do not let a "squeaky wheel" lead the meeting.
You are the moderator and your job is exactly that—to preside over the conversation and ensure all participants stay on track.
Do not conduct activities that are a lot of formatting and set up for little pay off.
If you are going to conduct an exercise, know what you and the attendees should get out of it, and make sure everyone really does walk away with new knowledge or understanding.
Do not expect your meetings to always go as planned.
When you are meeting with a large group of people that you do not know, there is no way to be sure exactly where the conversation or activity will lead you. Be prepared to think on your feet, and be able to respond to where the conversation is going. Don't just follow a script to follow a script.
Do not ask leading questions.
This is one of the items I, personally, have the most trouble with. How you phrase a question is just as important as what you are asking and will set the tone for the conversation. Be sure you are really giving fodder for unfettered conversation, not just looking for answers that support your own agenda.
Do not go into the meeting with any assumptions.
Making assumptions will only prevent you from finding out unexpected truths. Go into every meeting acting as if you know nothing.
This list is in no way meant to be complete guide to kickoffs. I hope it provides a good starting place for the novice kickoff organizer and a few new twists or takeaways for the kickoff veteran.
Creative Commons image by Smat K Jain