Kick off meeting: Can it get any better!

Using the Starfish Exercise to help your team get better at facilitating client meetings.

The kick off of a project brings together your design team and the client’s team. It is that rare moment of innocence, when both sides join efforts to feel their way around the space of the unknown, marking the gaps, and looking for hints and signs.

Do it well, and you can build the kind of rapport and mutual understanding that will propel the project forward.

That was our goal when we stepped out of the car on that chilly winter morning to meet our MHCI Capstone Project client, The Mentoring Partnership Of Southwestern Pennsylvania (TMP), for our kick off meeting.

We had prepared for two weeks: Dissecting their prompt; doing preliminary research; and using Question Storming to get a firmer grasp of what we needed to know.

Crossing the threshold into the office, we were ready with an agenda that promised to put every minute ahead to good use. For most of us, this was our first ever kickoff meeting.

Five hours later we were all beaming, knowing it had gone well. But, each one of us knew that there were things that could have gone better.

To get better at facilitation, we had to share our individual observations as a team

We wanted a way to pool together our experiences from the meeting — how we emotionally were affected and what we observed from our individual vantage points — to help us draw out lessons for the whole team.

For this, we used the Starfish Exercise.

We drew out a five-legged Starfish, labelling sections as:

  • Keep doing
  • More of this
  • Less of this
  • Start doing
  • Stop doing

We then spent five minutes, writing our thoughts on sticky notes, and putting them in the appropriate section of the Starfish.

From there, it was like getting into a time machine, with individual notes serving as portals to those moments of success or failure. We relived the meeting as a team, sharing each others’ feelings, doubts, and hopes. We gained a common understanding of what worked, and what needed improvement.

The Starfish has been hanging on the office wall ever since. A mere glance is enough to take me back to the excitement of the kickoff meetings and remind me the lessons we learned.

A glimpse at what we learned from our Starfish Exercise

Keep doing:

We all agreed that our client was pleased with our well-planned agenda. We acknowledged the importance of keeping the agenda flexible, especially if the client is engaged.

More of this:

A theme in this category was visualizing key information and takeaways for everyone. We utilized the whiteboard during our meeting, but could have done it even more. TMP was most engaged when we diagrammed their organization’s relationships and influences on the whiteboard. This was a critical point in the meeting where we got the most clarity and involvement. We definitely plan to get up to the board more often and create visual representations of our client conversations whenever possible.

Less of this:

For the client kickoff, our goal was to better understand TMP as an organization and get their input on the problem space. We felt that one aspect of the meeting that did not help us achieve this was getting too into the nitty-gritty details, and letting a single issue monopolize too much of the meeting. We reaffirmed our commitment as a team to stick to the larger goals of the meeting so we can avoid getting sucked into tangential topics.

Always remember, kickoffs are ephemeral.

You don’t want to interrupt the intimacy of building rapport by introducing cameras; so, a month or two later, you have nothing left but the artifacts, albeit fancy diagrams or copious notes.

For this reason, it is essential to debrief as a team, so you can understand what went right and what can be improved upon next time. As time passes after the kickoff you will have lost the richness of the gestures, the ebb and flow of the emotions, the sting of the awkward moments. We believe those subtle behavioral nuances are what need to be captured, and the Starfish Exercise helped us uncover those learnings for our future meetings.

Like what you read? Give Yousef Kazerooni a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.