Phase-gates (also referred to as stage-gates) are an element of most project management methods and indicate a certain level of maturity in organisations. But what are they and how can you successfully pass through a gate?

Let’s find out.

What are phase-gates

They are triggered by the completion of a discrete piece of work in the project life cycle – a stage, such as Concept, Design, etc – and represent a go/no-go decision for the project. During a phase-gate review, the ‘gatekeepers’ will assess the progress of the project and validate if it is still achievable and desirable, following what is also a PRINCE2© principle – ensuring that there is continuous justification for the project to proceed.

A review includes three key perspectives:

  1. Looking back: did we achieve what we said we would for the stage that is now ending?
  2. Looking ahead: do we have a solid and well-thought-out plan for the stage that is now initiating?
  3. Looking across: are we still confident in the project delivery? Is there still a need for this project? Can the intended benefits still be realised through the project?

It is a proper moment of reflection on the project and therefore it should not be rushed or neglected. Instead, enough time should be allowed for preparation for the phase-gate and any remediation actions coming out of the review.

5 common challenges

Despite the acknowledged importance of phase-gates for project success, many organisations struggle to put this process in place and, even for the ones where the process is established, some typical challenges can be encountered:

  1. The gates are always open: if phase-gates are just lip service that will mean that there are no actual gates; the gates are always open, and projects are never stopped. There might be several reasons for this but the most frequent relates to the fallacy of the sunk cost – “but we have spent so much money and effort so far! We cannot stop it now!”. Trust me, you can. Repeat after me: “I’m not going to fall for sunk costs.” Have a look at the brave example of Lidl, which stopped a SAP implementation project after burning 500 million on it already.
  2. Thinking that a stopped project is a failed project: following from the previous, another key reason for them not to be respected is based on our own perceptions and expectations and how these are supported or constrained by the organisational culture, leading many projects to always “pass with recommendations”. If my project is stopped at a gate, that should not be perceived as a failure but instead, as a sign that the organisation is being effective in managing its resources. Indeed, allowing a project to proceed despite knowing that it no longer offers conditions to succeed it’s not just a matter of inefficiency but also a reflection of poor professionalism since these resources (people, money) could have been spent in other projects with higher chances of success.
  3. The gate is just a tick box exercise: if the project stage is just being evaluated through a checklist – very often too focused on internal processes and project artefacts but not asking any hard questions about the project business justification or plans for the next stage – then it is missing the point of stage gates. The gate should enable a holistic and critical review of the project that could allow the project to come out of the stage stronger and more prepared for the remaining of its journey. Checklists are useful as prompts, but a phase-gate is not an assessment where your main purpose is to gain a golden star! Phase-gates demand analysis, reflection, and proper thinking.
  4. There are very few or too many phase-gates: having the right number of gates, and the right focus at each of them is also important. If the only phase-gates you have are at the beginning and at the end of the project, you might as well not have them at all, since it will be too late by then to act on any deviant project. Similarly, also having too many for the sake of introducing control points can be inefficient and slow down the project. Finally, where the phase-gates are placed also matters: have you ever been in an organisation where there are many phase-gates in the initial stages of the project (link to budget releases) but none during delivery? Not unusual, unfortunately.
  5. Submarine projects finally emerge to the surface: they can be very effective, but if the only time you hear about a project is at the phase-gate, something isn’t right. I call these ‘submarine projects’ – occasionally, for a phase-gate, they emerge to the surface to award us with an update. Effective project governance and assurance should be visible throughout the project, not just when there is a phase-gate to go through!

Tips to move through a phase-gate

Are you approaching a phase-gate? Here are some practical tips for you:

1. Work with your PMO: use the PMO as your critical friend, someone with whom you can test yourself in preparation for the actual phase-gate. The PMO will be happy to do its analysis and provide recommendations.

2. Prepare, prepare, prepare: do not leave it until the end (yes, I appreciate this might sound a paradox). Instead, start preparing your phase-gate from the moment the gate initiates – that will ensure that you don’t have to rush to get your project ready last minute.

3. Manage expectations: work with the Project Sponsor and project board in preparing your project for the gate. There shouldn’t be any surprises to them. You are not alone.

4. Be transparent: no one likes to be the messenger of bad news but sometimes this is necessary. Always be transparent and honest about the actual situation of the project and, if you need help, don’t be afraid to ask for it.

5. Relax: they are not monsters and they exist to support the project, not to get rid of it without a reason. They are a natural moment of the life of the project. Use that opportunity to show that you have it under control. Be brave, relax, shine. You’ve got this.