How Product Managers Kick-Off Projects
Use kickoff meetings to empower builders to drive execution.
After roadmapping, prioritization and defining success for your projects, it’s time to start executing. Enter the kickoff meeting. This meeting brings all stakeholders onto the same page, defines ownership and creates momentum around execution.
When done right, kickoff meetings can help to empower your team to drive progress independently. It can be seen as passing the baton from the PM, the person who often defines the feature, to the lead builders on your team.
Successfully passing the baton is an art.
When I first became a PM, I didn’t think I needed to pass it at all. Isn’t the role of a PM to lead projects? While this is true initially, to scale yourself and take on more scope, you need to empower leaders on your team to drive execution so you can spend time defining the direction of your product.
Below I’ll share my process towards kickoff meetings — an invaluable tool to scale your leverage.
Why are kickoffs useful?
Create ownership within your team: to successfully scale your team, you need multiple leaders. One litmus test of how centralized your leadership is: would your team fall apart if you were sick for a week? Kickoff meetings help to establish new owners to drive projects.
Create clarity: kickoffs ensure that everyone has all the details, context and definition necessary to make the project succeed.
Create excitement and momentum: finally, kickoffs are a great opportunity to install excitement, urgency and purpose into a project.
Before the meeting
Find owners: On any given project, there are several product team members involved. This may include designers, engineers, data scientists, product marketing managers or any other number of roles. It’s important to find 1-2 members who have the knowledge and capacity to drive progress.
Often, these are the people who will be closest to the project. If this is a front-end heavy feature, for example, a designer may be well-suited to drive progress. If its an analytics heavy, this may be the team data scientist.
One thing that is not variable is that this person must have the capacity and ability to lead the project. These people are looking to grow their scope and are on a track to a formal leadership role (ex. Engineering manager) on the team.
Define the product: regardless of the owner, the PM still needs to define the project. Loop in the owners early to get their ideas, but ensure that you have a product spec or product requirements doc defined.
Huddle with owners to ensure that you are all aligned: With owners defined and a product spec ready, ensure that the leads are aligned on the requirements and what will be necessary to succeed. Tactically, this will allow them to answer all of the questions from their teammates in the kickoff meeting and beyond — allowing them to be seen as the project leader.
Ask an owner to schedule and drive the kickoff: This puts them in the right spot to drive the meeting and be the point of contact for questions that arise in the future. Be available if they need support (ex. “Loop me in if you need my help.”).
Include stakeholders: Include all relevant team members in the meeting. It may also include people who want to be aware of progress (ex. A sales team member who wants to understand timelines for a project their client has been requesting).
Suggest topics to cover: topics I like to suggest are:
Why are we building this (i.e. the wider context)?
How did we decide to work on this project over others?
The product brief
Any initial designs or engineering architecture
Next steps and timelines
During the meeting
Understand the two purposes of a kickoff:
For the team: the purpose of the meeting is to get concrete next steps on how this project will be executed. People should leave the meeting with action items, a clear understanding of why we’re building this product, and excitement.
For the PM: the purpose is to empower owners to drive the project independently. This will help maximize the impact of your team, get the most value from individual team members and free your capacity to work on projects that demand your attention.
Volunteer to take notes: this is a value add that allows the owner to focus on driving the meeting. It’s also a general best practice for PMs.
Do not lead, but play your role: although there will be owners driving the meeting, you may be called upon to share product-specific details. These may include the product vision, how it aligns with broader strategy or any external dependencies that you will help to resolve.
If the owner forgets, ask about the next steps towards the end of the meeting: this makes sure there are next steps and accountability to drive progress.
After the meeting
Congratulate the project leads: this is just a nice thing to do! It also shows appreciation for their leadership.
Pro-tip: give the next steps you’ve documented to the owners to share out. I will literally type out the next steps, action items and timeline and encourage the person who led the meeting to share it out. This reinforces that they are leading and driving the project from here on out.
Take the back seat but be available: with owners now driving progress, be sure to make yourself available to unblock, help or support in any helpful way.
The kick-off meeting is one of my favourite tools for creating ownership within your team. It allows teams members to step up and grow their skillset while freeing up your capacity to focus on strategy or more involving execution projects.
Kickoffs should create clear ownership, project clarity and excitement for the work being started.
Before the meeting, find owners and make sure they are aligned with the plan. Encourage them to schedule and set the agenda for the meeting.
During the meeting, support the owners by taking notes and sharing the pieces they feel are necessary (ex. Product vision).
After the meeting, congratulate them and give them the next steps to share widely. Be available to support where necessary.
Give it a try, and let me know how it goes!
📚 Great reads, watches and listens
🤝 Being a Tech Lead in an Empowered Product Team: This read captures the ideal team state for a product team. In it, you’ll see tech leads doing far more than engineering.
🤑 Life Advice: Become a Billionaire: A quasi-empirical argument for why you should aim to be a billionaire. A fun and thought-provoking read!
🛬 How to write landing pages: As I work on a new project now, I’m amazed at how little I know about copywriting. This is a great resource for those building side projects.
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Until next time,
Great principles here. I do a lot of enablement / delivery / execution work which often involves empowering our 25 person team to execute a project to impact an org consisting of 3k folks.
Our kickoff / launch meetings are crucial and I've been trying to put together a playbook so we can programmatize the process. Have some similar principles there and happy to share with you down the road if interested too.