The Stage Gate Process gets too little love from Project Managers. Yet it has the potential to transform your project management, deliver more successful projects, and make you a better project manager.
A Stage Gate is also known by many other names:
In a Stage Gate process, you break your project into stages, or phases. Each stage ends with a gate. And the metaphor is simple: you don’t complete the stage and cross to the next one, until you pass through the gate. So, at each stage gate, the project’s decision-makers review your project against a set of criteria.
Using the information you make available, they decide whether to:
In this article, we look at why a stage gate process will enhance your project management, and how to make it work.
The Stage Gate Process examines your projects at key decision points in its lifecycle. It is an important part of project governance that looks both backward and forwards.
The Stage Gate Process is often a mandatory part of large Governmental projects in many countries. It is also best practice commercial and voluntary sector projects. As you’d expect, the stage gate process is principally used in traditional (or ‘waterfall’) projects. because, in these, the whole project is divided into stages.
We’ll examine the case for applying the stage gate principle to Agile projects towards the end of this article.
A Stage Gate Review is a process for achieving a robust Go/No-go decision. By robust, we mean it needs to be auditable. So, it must:
So, each Stage Gate Review provides an independent (of the project team) confirmation of your project’s health and the continued case for support. The emphasis of the Stage Gate Review is on:
The results of the Stage Gate Review Team’s assessment can be:
The Project Management Institute’s (PMI’s) PMBOK 6th Edition:
A review at the end of a phase in which a decision is made to continue to the next phase, to continue with modification, or to end a project or program.
The Association for Project Management’s (APM’s) Body of Knowledge defines:
The point between phases, gates and/or tranches where a go/no go decision can be made about the remainder of the work.
And finally, OnlinePMCourses’s own free Project Management glossary, ‘Decode the Jargon of Project Management‘ defines:
Stages are separated by stage boundaries, also known as stage gates, gates or gateways. These are review points where we make go or no-go decisions based on how the project is performing and the value we will get from our further investment.
A formal review – usually conducted by objective reviewers from outside the project – that takes place at Stage Boundaries, or Gateways.
According to Bernice Rocque and Walter Viali, Stage Gate reviews started at Corning, Inc. There, product managers created a five-stage process in 1986, which they called their ‘stage-gate innovation’. Then, in 1991, a senior Corning IT executive borrowed the process and moved it to a project environment. And the results were successful.
Let’s set aside the very important governance imperative. This says that we need oversight, transparency, and accountability as a part of our project process. Clearly, a stage gate process contributes to this.
The Stage Gate process can benefit your project and enhance your project management in ways beyond accountability and transparency. Here are my top five ways that it can make you a better project manager.
Preparing for a gateway review compels you to gather evidence, review it, and prepare for scrutiny. The effect is that you take time to look below the surface of your project, and challenge your own intuitions about what is happening.
At its best, this is a bottom-up examination of the facts. But, it will go far deeper than you will ever go during your regular reporting cycle. It offers a real opportunity to spot un-noticed trends or issues.
And of course, it isn’t just you who will be studying this evidence closely. The value of fresh eyes is enormous. And fresh eyes that have no stake in your project, other than to see it succeed are doubly valuable. This is especially because they will have no stake in past decisions. So, they’ll be able to ask the probing questions you need to hear.
Preparing for a Stage Gate provides a rallying point for your team that can be motivating and energizing. It is a focus to work to, with clear requirements for everyone. And a rigorous review process will mean that the definition of ‘ready for review’ will be unambiguous. When you reach the point, it also offers a breathing space for your team colleagues.
Going through a phase review gives you and your team confidence. Confidence that you have done right, and will be doing right in going forward.
And, if the review finds things you need to put right, you can still be confident that the process has stopped you compounding errors or making new mistakes.
For me, the most important single reason for holding a stage gate review is that it breaks the ‘I’ve started, so I’ll finish’ trigger.
Projects get a momentum of their own. Even when they run into a serious problem, the team’s instinct is to solve it and drive through. But what if the solution destroys the business case? And, while you are working on a project stage, what if external circumstances change? And what if that change itself undermines your business case?
Too many projects start life as a positively beneficial venture, but end life stuffed in a cupboard and forgotten, because they are not needed. If only there had been a mechanism to stop them as soon as the business case started to look shaky. A stage gate review provides that mechanism.
The simple answer to this is: ‘at the end of each stage’. Part of your role as a project manager is to determine how many stages you need to create. Select stages to give you maximum control of your project. That said, there are some obvious models. A typical generic model may look like this:
This is right at the start of your project and assesses whether the project idea is a sound strategic fit.
This can also come after the project has been selected and focus on the detail of the project definition. We ask the question: ‘does this project make good business sense?’
PRINCE2 and the UK Government refer to Gate 0 – Strategic Assessment
Once the project team has defined the project, the next step is to develop a business case.
PRINCE2 and the UK Government refer to Gate 1 – Business Justification.
Here, we examine the plans and controls the project team has developed to test their rigor and answer the question: ‘how confident are we that the team can deliver the project to the schedule, budget, and specification in the business case?’
This review can be combined with the previous review, to answer the question: ‘should we invest?’. Or that can come at a subsequent stage gate review.
PRINCE2 and the UK Government refer to Gate 2 – Delivery Strategy
This is the final assessment of whether the project design will meet the need that the business case describes.
PRINCE2 and the UK Government refer to Gate 3 – Investment Decision
At the end of the delivery stage of your project, all of the testing is complete. Now, the final sign-off is a stage gate review that assesses whether the final project products, or deliverables, meet specification. We ask the question: ‘Are they fit for purpose?’
PRINCE2 and the UK Government refer to Gate 4 – Readiness for Service Review
PRINCE2 and the UK Government has a final gateway review, between 6 and 18 months after handover of the completed project. This has the purpose of assessing the delivery of benefits in an operational environment. It is called Gate 5 – Benefits Realisation and Operational Review.
The Stage Gate needs to be independent of the day-to-day running of the project. And the more independent they are, the more rigorous their scrutiny is likely to be. They can be:
What is critical is that they have sufficient experience, and maybe training, to conduct an effective review. They also need to have sufficient time available.
Every organization will develop its own Stage Gate process. However, a typical generic process might have the following 5 steps:
Following these stages, the Project Sponsor and Project Manager would meet to discuss the appropriate next steps. If everything has gone well, these will be to proceed with the next project stage, as planned.
The primary objective of a Stage Gate Review is to determine whether a project should continue to the next stage (Go) or not (No-go).In doing this, the Stage Gate Review Team will look both ‘backwards’ and ‘forwards’.
The purpose here is to ensure all products / deliverables that the team planned for the stage, are complete, and meet their specifications and quality standards. The review team will compare progress to formal documents, such as:
The desired outcome from this part of the review is: Approval of current stage as complete. However, the Review Team may require the project to re-visit or complete certain work.
Here, the purpose is to assess the continuing viability and desirability of project. The team will pay specific regard to:
The desired outcome from this part of the review is: ‘Authorization for proceeding to next stage’. However, the Review Team may:
There is also a subsidiary objective from a Stage Gate Review; to extract lessons that the team can draw from work so far, which they need to apply to future work.
The UK Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) oversees major projects in the UK Public Sector. Its origin is with the now-defunct Office of Government Commerce (OGC). The OGC developed a sophisticated Gateway Review Process and introduced it across Central Government at the start of 2001.
The documentation that IPA offers is perhaps the most thorough guide to a Stage Gate Process. You will find a wealth of exceptional material (all at no cost) in their Assurance Review Toolkit. I particularly recommend the six OGC Gateway Review Guidance and Templates documents, which refer to the review stages 0 to 5.
Gateway reviews are carried out by a team of experienced professionals, who are independent of the project or program team. They are selected from a pool of accredited reviewers who all have relevant project, governance, functional, and sector skills. All reviewers have to go through training and an accreditation process.
Gateway Reviews can take from 2 to 4 days, with a review team of 3 or 4 people. Teams are chosen to meet the needs of the project or program under review. The review team produces a report that gives their overall assessment, findings, and recommendations.
The Stage Gate process comes from the world of New Product Development. And let’s not forget that this is where the idea of Scrum has its origins too.
There are two ways to look at the idea of stage gates within an Agile context.
It’s easy to argue that Agile processes already have the idea of gates built in. You may call them criteria, definitions of done, or minimum viable products. The end of each sprint exposes the work done to the gate criteria.
However, many Agilists may argue that Agile gates differ from the stage gates of a traditional waterfall process. This is because the stage gate review process we’ve seen above does not provide a direct benefit to the customer. Agile is concerned that everything we do must be directed towards delivering a working feature. It has little time for activities that are solely designed to advance the project.
In response, I’d make two principal points:
In the language of traditional project management, we can see that Agile methodologies work best in the Development and Testing Stages of a project. The project stages at either side of this central phase can still benefit from a Stage Gate Process. That is:
We’d love to hear about your experiences, ideas, and questions. Please leave them in the comments section below, and we’ll respond to every contribution.
Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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