Project gates

"Chutes and Ladders®" for project managers

Introduction

Project Management is about communication. Communication is needed to initiate the project. Communication is needed to establish the project plan. Communication is ongoing during execution and control. Communication is needed to effectively close the project. Communication is also required as projects move though the phases appropriate to their application (technical) domain. For example, depending on the application area progressive elaboration may include feasibility, planning and design, construction, and start-up; or top-level design, detail design, implementation, test, and then acceptance.

Project Gates and Project Gate Reviews are both concepts that provide key communication opportunities as projects move through the project processes and application specific elaboration steps.

Gates and Gate Reviews also provide a formal means of controlling project risk, monitoring scope changes, and maintaining stakeholder interest. Within a Project/Program Management Office, Gate Reviews are also a means of project management process deployment and process change management. Lastly Gates are a project management integrating function since all project factors are considered simultaneously with all stakeholders and resource providers. Only when this body is in agreement, should the project go forward.

Chutes and Ladders® for Project Managers

For several decades the child's game “Chutes and Ladders®” has been a popular pastime. In this game each player moves their token along a path according to the spin of a wheel. There are entrances to either a “ladder” or a “chute” at several places along the path. The ladders, which bypass any intervening hazards, allow the player to immediately advance a significant way along the path. Landing on a “chute”, which resembles a slide, causes the player to immediately slide back to a previous position, and forces the player to retrace the path just taken with all its hazards.

Like this childhood game, applying the idea of project Gates is like the game of “Chutes and Ladders”. However, unlike the game where a spin of a wheel determines the outcome, the project manager has a significant influence on whether he or she will encounter and “ladder”, a “chute”, or just the project path ahead. Outside events and information also influence the outcome of the Gate. The Gate is there to make sure these events and information are considered.

What are Gates?

gate (gât) noun

  1. A structure that can be swung, drawn, or lowered to block an entrance or a passageway.
  2. A means of access: the gate to riches.
Gate reviews accomplish two main goals.

Gate reviews provide management specific points in the project life cycle when further progress entails higher investment and commitment. At the Gate Review the project manager reviews progress made to-date, changes since the last Gate Review, and the plan for the work between this Gate and the subsequent Gate. To be effective Gates should address the two key causes of project failure, scope changes and risk. Formal (change order) and informal scope changes (unknown complexity), and new risks and risk assessments should be Gate topics. Gate reviews give management visibility into the project's progress to-date, changes since the last Gate, and the project manager's plan for the near term. At this point management may let the project proceed, delay, alter, or cancel the project before further work is performed.

As a result of a successful Gate Review, the project manager has obtained the concurrence that the work to-date is satisfactory, risk is controlled, scope is being addressed, the plans are sound, and the organization remains committed to the project.

Project Gates are key points in a project where a formal review of the project's current state is performed. Most often they appear at the phase transitions of projects and represent a point in the project where the sponsor and stakeholders will incur increased risk, expense, and reward. When a project Gate is encountered, a Gate Review is held to determine if the project should proceed or not and under what conditions. Although the Gate Review may appear like a project status meeting, it is much more important. Project meetings tend to be periodic (weekly, monthly, etc.) and are generally led by the project manager and attended by project staff. Its purpose is to provide project status information, resolve problems, review risk, review cost and schedule performance, and provide communication among the project team. The project manager uses information from project meetings to inform management about the state of the project.

Gates and Gate Reviews are not periodic. Gates occur at phase transitions and thus are paced by the rate of progress and complexity of the project. Gate Reviews address progress to-date, scope, detail plans for the next phase, sponsor recommitment, and authorization to proceed into the next phase. Gates represent a point in time when the project manager may be told to execute the next phase per the plan (a ladder), rework one or more of last phase's deliverables (a chute), or revise and resubmit the plans for the phase. A Gate Review can also kill a project if the project's purpose and benefit are no longer consistent with the risk, required resources, or strategy of the enterprise. Attendees at a Gate Review are generally senior managers, sponsors, resource providers, and possibly other project managers (peers). The project team should not be included since discussion may involve staffing, the project's purpose, etc. Once the Gate decisions are made the project manager has a obligation to inform the project team. Although the project manager has a significant role in defining the outcome, the Gate Keeper and stakeholders have an equally significant role. Gate Reviews should accomplish the following:

  • Assessment of readiness for project to go forward
  • A revalidation of the project's purpose
  • A recap of recent project history
  • A look into the project's near-term plans
  • A re-commitment of resources
  • An ‘external’ review of the project

Defining the Gate Keeper

gate-keep-er (gât1kê'per) noun

  1. One that is in charge of passage through a gate.
  2. One who monitors or oversees the actions of others.

The Gate Keeper should not be the project manager nor the project sponsor. The Gate Keeper is a person whose role in the Review is to make sure the project proceeds with an enterprise-wide re-commitment to the (current) scope, required resources, estimated risk, and other enterprise and project interests. Thus the Gate Keeper cannot be the project manager since he or she is too close to the project to make this decision. The project manager is also ill equipped to consider cancelling the project. Likewise, the sponsor may not be the Gate Keeper due to his or her strong desire to keep a questionable project alive. The best candidate for Gate Keeper may be a project manager supervisor or head of a Project/Program Management Office. He or she should be managing a portfolio of projects and multiple project managers. The Gate Keeper should also have an interest in the organisation's project management process so that the Gate Review can be used for process deployment. This person should also be at a peer level with resource providers, project sponsors, and senior management. The Gate Keeper should also know good project management principles and what should be expected of project managers considering their experience and their project. Regardless of who is assigned the Gate Keeper role, this person should be neutral regarding the outcome of the Gate Review. This person should chair the Gate Review meeting, set the agenda, and invite the participants. The project manager's role is to prepare for the meeting and plan to review the overall project, the just completed phase, plans for the next phase, risks and risk plans, scope and scope changes, and other project specific information needed for a “Chutes” or “Ladders” decision.

Defining Each Gate

The number of Gates and their location within the project and its phases, must be defined before the project is undertaken. Furthermore, in a PMO or multi-project organization, there should be consistency in the application of Gates and Gate Reviews. This helps develop a project management process and discipline that can become the organization's project culture. Often a project template is used to show where in the nominal project the Gates occur. Each gate should have a unique name and/or number so that everyone is familiar with the Gates, what order they occur, and what phase the Gate opens toward. For example, Gate 3 might be a “Design Gate” meaning that the project design phase will follow the Gate. This Gate would examine the efforts and products completed to-date to determine if the project should proceed into design, and make the investment. Items reviewed might include the clarity of the product requirements, purpose, and technology; the design statement of work (if contracted); and the design budget, schedule, risks, and assumptions.

Defining the Gate Process

The success of Gates and Gate Reviews is dependent upon a defined Gate Review process. The process definition should include items common to each Gate and items unique to each Gate. For example, common elements might be the Gate Review invitees (by title), mandatory attendees, meeting duration, meeting chair, meeting scheduling requirements, decision making rules (majority, veto, and unanimity etc.). Unique elements for specific Gates might include the Gate's purpose, additional invitees and mandatory attendees, possible outcomes, and presentation topics.

Regardless of the Gate or the industry, each Gate should review each of the project manager's plans in each of the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®) knowledge areas and application areas. Often when a project moves into the next phase there is a technology transfer. The adequacy of the developed technology should be reviewed at each Gate to ensure that the products of the preceding phase and determine if all prerequisites have been met for the next phase to succeed. In software development, for example, the coding phase should not be allowed to start until the design is completed to previously established completion criteria. If the design cannot be completed, the Gate Keeper should examine why.

Exhibit 1 shows how a Gate process might be shown.

Tabular view of three Gates

Exhibit 1, Tabular view of three Gates

Gate Outcomes

Most Gates result in three possible outcomes; (a) the project manager may proceed from the last phase to the next Gate, (b) the project manager may conditionally proceed but must address or re-work some key open items, (c) the project is cancelled. In the latter case the project may be cancelled for business or risk reasons and should not reflect on the project manager. One goal of the Gate Review is to limit the exposure of the organization to loss as the project moves to higher levels of commitment and investment. Like the game of Chutes and Ladders®, Gates are points where the project can move quickly ahead, proceed slowly, or have to repeat a previous step.

Benefits to the Project Manager

The Gate Review provides a project manager the opportunity to demonstrate the progress made to-date, any project scope changes since the last Gate Review, and the project manager's plan for work between this Gate and the subsequent Gate. As a result of a successful Gate Review, the project manager has obtained the concurrence that the work to-date is satisfactory, risk is controlled, scope is being addressed, plans are sound, and the organization remains committed to the project. Furthermore, all the Gate participants now share in the decision to proceed into a higher investment phase of the project. The project manager is only one of many who have reviewed the planning, combined wisdom and experiences, and have decided the increased investment and commitment is a sound decision. If unforeseen problems do occur in the project, few could ask the project manager why he or she did not foresee the problem since they too, were present during the Gate Review.

Forum Discussion

Designing a Gate Review process can be a challenge. How many “chutes” and “ladders” are part of the Gate Review process? Where do we place the “ladders”? Where do we place the “chutes”? Who is/are the gatekeeper(s)? What does the PMO and review team examine at each Gate Review? What are their expectations at each Gate for each review area? Where does the customer fit in?

This forum discussion provides attendees with the knowledge and conceptual ideas for designing and implementing a Gate Review process within their organization. Attendees will participate in discussion on how Gates can be a part of their project management process within their organization and industry. Next, discussion will be held on which PMBOK® knowledge areas are applicable for each Gate and what are the expectations. At the close of the discussion a comparison of the various Gate processes will be made. We will examine how many Gates were defined, where in the project they occurred, and what exit criteria might be established for each Gate Review topic.

References:

“Chutes and Ladders®” is a registered trademark of Hasbro, Inc. The playing board is a copyright of Hasbro, Inc.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from InfoSoft International, Inc. All rights reserved.

A guide to the project management body of Knowledge 2000 Edition. (2000). Newtown Square, PA: PMI

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

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