Kick Off the Road to Success With a Meeting of the Minds 

Most people agree that communication is a major element behind the success of any team effort. The importance of everyone understanding their participation in the project — functioning as a team — and focusing on moving the project to a successful completion is as universally praised as motherhood and apple pie. 

However, the mechanics of ensuring this happens is often left to chance or ignored until there’s a problem. A key element for ensuring success on a given project is the project kickoff meeting. This happens at different times. Sometimes it’s early in the process when a project represents a negotiated sale rather than a competitive bid, while at other times it is just before the final contract is awarded. Whatever the timing, this is an occasion to get all of the players together to agree on the scope of work, hammer out all of the unanswered questions, and ensure the goals and challenges are clearly understood by all. 

Why should this meeting be held before the final project contract is signed? Since this meeting also represents a final opportunity to catch mistakes, explore design options and perform value engineering, it is important to take care of these things before entering into the expensive “change order zone” — from which many budgets never recover. Even if the owner and consultant have nailed down every possible project detail in advance, the opportunity to have a fresh set of experienced eyes to evaluate your project and suggest improvements is priceless. 

Choose Meeting Location Wisely
It is vital for the entire team to be represented at this meeting. It goes without saying that the owner and integrator should be there, with the critical players on each side in attendance. If a consultant is used, they will usually conduct the meeting, managing the owner’s expectations while validating the integrator’s position. It is also tremendously helpful to have representatives from the manufacturers of the critical systems there as well, while larger projects may require a factory employee in attendance. 

In my experience, manufacturers are happy to participate in these sessions, understanding they’ll be blamed for any failures as well. Often the manufacturer is the one ultimately the target of finger-pointing for any system shortfalls, and starting out right is far less expensive than fixing things when the pressure is mounting. 

The location for this meeting can be a source of debate, but it is often best to use a simple method to determine where the meeting will be held: cost. Participation is critical, and travel costs often thin the herd, permitting only a smaller number of employees to attend. This isn’t an issue if everyone is in the same geographical area, but if there’s travel involved the smaller team should go to the larger one. Often this means the meeting is held at the integrator’s office, which allows critical but lower-level folks to attend and participate. Sometimes, however, the location is predetermined. My office, just outside the resort town of Atlantic City, is often the location for summer meetings. Go figure. 

Perhaps the simplest part of the meeting is what should be discussed. In a word, everything. Schedules, specifications, drawings, coordination, construction schedules — anything that might cause a slip or bring questions to mind are fair game. You can skip over subjects if extensive review is not needed, but be prepared to discuss everything. Plan a full day for smaller projects and up to two days for larger ones. 

After that, you tend to hit a point of diminishing returns, where folks get tired and other work backs up. Try to make sure the priority items are addressed early on in the session to ensure that they are given everyone’s undivided attention.

Digitally Record the Proceedings
Once the meeting is finished, it is important that it be documented for the record. A summary E-mail is often sufficient to recap topics discussed, assign responsibility and establish deadlines. If documents are revised as a result of the meeting, indicate when that will be done and how the revisions will be provided. 

Sometimes a set of meeting minutes is sufficient to capture the changes. On larger projects, our firm reissues the project specification with changes from the meeting added in a different color. 

Meeting minutes are notoriously bad unless the person keeping the minutes is fairly technical in nature and understands the material being reviewed. It’s hard for the person conducting the meeting to fulfill this role and often things are missed as a result. Coupled with the fact that few people will actually read and correct the minutes until it is too late, I strongly recommend the meeting be recorded as a backup. 

A good example is a meeting I conducted several years ago for the kickoff of a large project. The person taking the minutes — we’ll call her Rachael — was well intentioned, but did not understand the subject matter being discussed. If you hadn’t been at the meeting, it is unlikely that you would understand that “The workstations of a dual monitor output” meant that certain workstations needed dual monitor outputs to view digital images on separate screens. 

Throughout the project, whenever there was a question, each side would refer to the meeting minutes and find a string of words that they claim supported their position. The project was a success, but a valuable tool was relegated to a humorous side note.

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