This month’s post comes from the folks over at MindTools, and discusses the use of “Phase Gates” as they relate to project management.
What Is A Phase Gate and How Do I Use One?
For all but the smallest projects, experienced project managers use well-established project management methodologies. These are often published systems – such as PMBOK (Project Management Body of Knowledge) or PRINCE2 – but they can also be in-house methodologies that are specific to the organization.
These approaches have some differences in emphasis, and they tend to use slightly different terminology, but they generally share two key features: projects are delivered in stages, and certain common project management processes run across these stages.
This is illustrated in figure 1, below.
Figure 1 – Project Management Structure
This article explains these phases and processes in more detail.
If any of the terms used in this article are unfamiliar to you, refer to our article Words Used in… Project and Program Management.
Phases, or stages, are very important for project managers. By thinking in terms of phases, you can ensure that the deliverables produced at the end of each phase meet their purpose, and that project team members (or sub-teams) are properly prepared for the next phase.
You identify the required deliverables for each phase from the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) for it. The WBS is drafted as part of your preparation activities, and then validated by the rest of the project team. At the end of each phase, someone signs off on the deliverables from that phase. (In your preparation phase, think through who needs to approve each deliverable. Approvers may include the project board, project sponsor, or key stakeholders.) Once the deliverables are approved, the phase is completed and the project team can pass through the “gate” to the next phase. This is why the term “stage/gate” is used so often in project management.
The exact phases, and the order in which they’re completed, may vary slightly, depending on what you need to achieve with your project. The phases are as follows:
- Project strategy and business case.
- Development and testing.
- Training and business readiness.
- Support and benefits realization.
- Project close.
Let’s explore each phase in more detail.
Project Strategy and Business Case
In this phase, you define the overall project business requirement, and propose the approach or methodology that you want to use to address it.
The gate at the end of this phase is the approval of your high-level project proposal and of the business case that validates the approach you want to use. You must also show that you can achieve the project’s goal within the required timelines and budget.
Make sure that you review the business case at the end of each project phase to ensure that it’s still valid. If anything has changed, revise it as needed.
Here, you work with key stakeholders and project team members who have already been identified to establish and start the project:
- Complete a high-level Work Breakdown Structure.
- Determine the project’s high-level plan at the milestone level. (Work with appropriate project team members to produce detailed plans at each subsequent phase. This ensures that they have a sense of ownership of these plans.)
- Identify and recruit project members.
- Produce the Project Initiation Document.
- Select third parties to use in the early project phases (for example, IT subcontractors or partners).
- Put actions in place to secure key resources. (For example, reserve rooms for the training phase, and allocate desks and PCs/printers for the project team.)
I this phase you start the work involved with creating the project’s deliverables, using the project strategy, business case, and Project Initiation Document as your starting point. Then work with relevant stakeholders to develop the designs of the main deliverables. In larger projects, you may use business analysts to help you with this.
You probably have a project board or project sponsor who is responsible for signing off the overall design, but make sure you also get input from other stakeholders as well. This helps build business ownership of the project deliverables.
If changes to processes are required, use a Flow Chart or Swim Lane Diagram to create a detailed map of how things will work. At this stage, you must do everything you can to think through and deal with project issues before you start to build project deliverables – problems are almost always easier and cheaper to fix at design stage than they are once the detailed work of implementation has started.
Select stakeholders carefully for the detailed design phase. A good detailed design is more likely to lead to a good project deliverable. If the detailed design is poor, the project deliverables are much less likely to meet requirements!
For projects that have significant technical risks and uncertainties, consider including a feasibility or proof-of-concept phase. This increases your certainty that what you’re planning (probably at great expense) will work, while allowing you to cancel the project at minimum cost if the proof-of-concept fails.
Development and Testing
With all of the planning and designing complete, the project team can now start to develop and build the components of the project output – whether it’s a piece of software, a bridge, or a business process.
As part of this phase, you need to test these components thoroughly to confirm that they work as they should.
Training and Business Readiness
This stage is all about preparing for the project launch or “go live.” Do the following things during this phase:
- Train users.
- Put in place ongoing support.
- Transfer data to new systems.
- Identify what’s required for the project to be effective from the launch date, and ensure that you adequately address this.
Support and Benefits Realization
Make sure you provide transitional support to the business after the project is launched, and consider what’s required before your team members are reassigned. Project teams are often assigned to other work too soon after the project has gone “live”, meaning that project benefits are often not fully realized.
Monitor the delivery of project benefits. You can use this to promote your project or to give you information about other actions needed to ensure that the project is successful.
You can monitor benefits as part of “business as usual” activities, and you should (ideally) continue to do so after the project is closed.
Closing a project is not the most exciting part of the project lifecycle, but, if you don’t do it properly, you may obstruct the ongoing delivery of benefits to the organization. Make sure you do the following:
- Complete and store documentation.
- Carry out a Post-Implementation Review, so that you and your colleagues can use the experience you’ve gained in future projects.
- Use your business connections to reassign project team members to appropriate roles in the organization. You don’t want to lose the experience and knowledge that they’ve gained from working on the project.
Project Management Processes
The key project management processes, which run though all of these phases, are:
- Phase management.
- Team management.
Let’s look at each process in more detail.
- Phase management – Here, you ensure that you adequately satisfy the conditions for completing each phase, and for starting the next one. To do this, make sure that you fully understand the “gates”, or deliverables that must be completed and approved by the appropriate stakeholders before you can exit a phase. Deliverables and sign-off requirements are usually identified in the Project Initiation Document, so review this appropriately during the project.
- Planning – Carry out high-level planning for the whole project at the start of the project, then do more detailed planning for each phase at the start of each phase. Ensure that you have the right people, resources, methodologies, and supporting tools in place for each planning phase, so that you can deliver the project on time, on budget, and to appropriate quality standards.
- Control – It’s essential to control scope, cost, and issues; and to manage time, risks, and benefits effectively. Create reports that contain the information you need to create an accurate picture of how things are proceeding. A common way of doing this is to use a Project Dashboard.
- Team management – As project manager, you are responsible for managing the project team. Working on a project is often different from most “business as usual” activities, and project work may require a different approach and set of skills. As such, you’ll probably need specific project management training and support. And there are additional complexities in managing team members who have project responsibilities as well as other roles at the same time (see our article on Managing Cross-Functional Teams for more on this).
- Communication – Make sure that you’re clear about who is responsible for communicating to team members, the project board, the different stakeholders within the business, and relevant third parties. Inadequate communication is a frequent problem area for projects, and it needs considerable attention to communicate well.Our articles on communication skills are a useful starting point for developing these essential skills.
- Procurement – This is a specialist area. Many projects hire third parties to manage purchasing, particularly when it involves IT systems. Managing these third parties is often the role of the project manager. See our articles on Request for Proposal Documents and Procurement Management for more on this.
- Integration – Many projects do not stand on their own within an organization – they often impact other areas of the business. Make sure that you consider how your project will interface with other projects or functions.
Formal project management involves following an established project management methodology. In turn, most of these methodologies follow a set of common project phases, with common processes that run across each phase.