10 tips for the most productive yearly kickoff ever


You made it. Give yourself a pat on the back. You wrote your review, you launched your project, and if you’re like me, you celebrated the end of the year by eating exclusively carbs. Now, it’s time to focus, hit the treadmill, and get after those new year goals. In the coming weeks, organizations will gather their teams to align against business priorities. Whether you’re planning a yearly kickoff, offsite, lockdown, meetup, strategic planning session, or just plain ‘meeting’, it’s important to make the most of the time your team spends together. After years of designing meetings, we’ve compiled ten of our best tips for making your annual kickoff meetings wildly productive and engaging.

Get the team together

Yes, this sounds obvious, but with a scattered workforce it’s not always easy or obvious. It can be tempting to save the money and hold your kickoff using teleconference, but if you can swing an in-person gathering, you’ll accomplish so much more. Gathering the team in real life does a number of things:

It signals the importance of the meeting.

It ensures dedicated time to the subject at hand.

It drives accountability.

It deepens trust and friendship among the team members that will be doing the work.

If you can’t be together in the same space…

Please, for the love of all that is good, do not subject employees to an all-day teleconference. Keep the meeting brief and interactive, plan remote participation meticulously, and test your technology as often as you can.

Decide what the year is all about

Do you know where your business is heading? Can you articulate it in one, short phrase? Articulating your priorities for the year is an important step to getting everyone aligned. The approach here matters. Think of it more like a marketing pitch than a strategic priority. You want it to be clear, concise, and memorable. For example, maybe 2019 is about shipping more innovative products? Come up with a rallying cry - something like Ship Ten - a phrase that indicates what action you want employees to take, say shipping ten new products. This is not the world’s greatest marketing slogan, but you get the idea. The key is that your phrase indicates a priority and a behavior. Once you have it, repeat it over and over again.

When it comes to the agenda, less is more

When employees travel to attend team meetings, leaders feel the pressure to maximize the time and expense. This usually results in multi-day agendas that start early, end late, and are jam-packed with activities and information. For the weary, jet-lagged employee, this is a recipe for delirium and subpar results. To get maximum productivity, try starting later, ending earlier, and don’t be afraid of free time. Your employees will thank you for it. Even though you may spend less time together, you’ll have greater productivity in those hours. Pick the 3 things you want to accomplish with the meeting and stick to them.

Co-create business goals

Leaders may set the strategy, but teams decide if it’s going to work. Including your team in the goal setting process fosters greater buy-in and makes for better goals.

Start with a prompt like:

What do our customers need from us this year? What should we be working on?

Have the teams answer these questions and decide on the most important. Include these in your plan for the new year.

Do the intellectual heavy lifting early in the day

Tackle your most creative, tough, decision-making-type-work in the morning. By about 2 pm, the enthusiasm and interactivity of a meeting room falls off a cliff. With our clients we often recommend kickoff and planning meetings to happen between 9 and 2 PM.

Change the scenery often

It doesn’t matter how charismatic a leader is, no one can hold a room for 8 hrs. Give your agenda an even mix of passive and interactive topics, changing them every 60 to 90 minutes. Move rooms, get crafty, play games, go outside, drink coffee, take breaks - anything to keep the working sessions interesting and your employees sharp.

Solve a problem

A team that is finally together and committed to a meeting is an incredible asset. Use the time to solve a real business problem. Spend part of your agenda interviewing customers, brainstorming products, or hacking an old problem. Challenge the team to create something new in 90 minutes and you’ll be amazed at what they come up with.

Consider the environment

Sweat the details. Just because you have a conference room doesn’t mean that's where you always have to meet. Pick a more lively space. Decorate a boring one. Add music to boost the energy. Include funny videos, pictures, artwork, or anything to send the signal that this isn’t a normal meeting. All of these details help to prime your team for more engagement and creativity.

Get inspirational

In all your messages and activities, find the emotional hook. Articulate the why, the impact, and make sure you tell the human story in all the accomplishments and goals, not just the financial one. Tell personal anecdotes, encourage others to be vulnerable, and include plenty of relationship building in the agenda. Set a tone for candor early on. Give teams something to aspire to. Inspired employees are hard-working employees.

Run a tight ship

There’s a lot to be said for staying on time and keeping people on task. With such a short window to get people aligned, the agenda should be detailed and the pace, fast. You can assign a facilitator for this task or hire a professional, either way its important that someone is managing the agenda. He or she must have the courage to hold all participants, even executive leaders, accountable to the activities and the time. A good facilitator and detailed agenda is usually the difference between “off the rails” or “super productive.”

Now go forth and conquer the new year! Your teams are waiting for you to inspire them and tell them what’s important. With a little effort up front, you’ll be able to implement these tips and the results will be noticeable. Good luck!

- Adam, Co-founder Bourbon Fat