Establishing a Gate process for your projects makes keeping control of your projects easy and effortless. Let me show you how.
Controlling your projects sometimes feels like walking on a razor’s blade. Micromanaging everything burns you out and frustrates your project managers or your team, doing not enough leads to laissez-faire and projects going down the drain. By the way, the Gate process is also helpful for Agile managed projects.
Controlling your projects – What is the RIGHT amount of control?
Keeping control of what happens in your projects can be daunting. I get this.
You either do too much and micromanage your project teams or you go into laissez-faire. And even If you found the right balance between controlling and laissez-faire, finding the right moment to intervene is more than difficult and always leads to the discussion “Why now? Why me?”
Managers and Business owners often micromanage out of a lack of trust in their own capabilities, which sounds counter-intuitive, but is true. I mean their capability of leading a team and motivating it to bring their best into the project.
Now there are circumstances where you must micromanage, because you do not have the level of people able to work on their own. But in this case, you should probably reconsider your hiring process. 😉
In all other cases you burn yourself out and frustrate your team, because you are permanently in control mode and they cannot move forward, as everything needs your approval, making you the bottleneck of the project.
Laissez-faire is just the opposite. It’s a sign that you try to avoid the hard conversations and put your stamp on how you want the work to be done and the quality to be delivered.
This is also a leadership issue, because unless you have a team which can solely work on its own and a project manager who understands your requirements (that by the way you did not formulate) better than you, your projects will go belly up. And you will only notice this when it’s too late.
The Gate Process
The cure for this kind of problem on a business owner / management level is to establish a gate process. A gate process is a way to define when control is exercised and when the team and the project manager can move forward on their own, unless they request support.
The advantages of this are manifold.
- It takes away the leadership stress some managers or owners may see as a burden. It replaces decisions in the control context by a system developed outside this stressful context.
- It provides the opportunity to take a step back to ask hard questions. Do we have all we need to continue the project? Is this project still in line with what we want to achieve in this company, with our vision, our values and our goals? And not to forget with what our customers want!
- It replaces decisions made in passing by with educated decisions at critical points of the project.
- It discharges the project manager from his responsibility for a phase through the validation by the management team.
- It forces the project team to check in on its own work and see if predefined criteria have been fulfilled.
What is a Gate?
Imagine an ancient gate at the exit of a town, where the traveller was to check, if they are well equipped for the adventures ahead (a map, water, victuals for passengers and horses) to make it to the next town. A Gate in project management is such a checkpoint.
Passing a gate in projects means that all the work done in the previous phase has provided the results as expected and all the information needed for the next phase of the project is available.
Do Agile Projects need a Gate Process?
Even if many people limit the gate process to standard Gantt chart planned waterfall style projects, I am convinced that, YES, Agile projects can largely benefit from gate processes.
Now Agile practitioners may think that this conflicts with the idea of a self-managed team and is an impermissible interference with Agile principles, but in fact it is NOT.
All Agile style project management systems include the principle of releases and release management. Well, I see the gate process as a release and as such it is good practice to follow these principles.
Apart from the points mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, the big advantage of integrating the gate process in an Agile managed project, is that it allows to state on the advancement of a project in a way that is also accessible to stakeholders who are not necessarily trained in assessing Agile projects, like bankers, investors, government officials and others.
It also allows to state the advancement of the project on a regular basis and avoid that it evolves in an unforeseen direction.
How to set up Gates?
Now let’s answer the question, when to set up those gates. Every 6 months, every month or when a certain event has happened?
There are 3 ways of setting up the gates in a Gate Process:
1) Time-based Gate setup
The first is to do it time-based. The advantage is, that it requires less thinking. You only need to decide about the intervals. Nevertheless, there are 2 big problems with this approach.
The first is, projects do not move at the same speed and do not require control at the same intervals over the project life. There are times, where a gate all 6 months is by far enough, because nothing will have happened in between and there are times, where a gate every month would be more appropriate.
The second is, you do not cater for any special events that require a decision to move on. The project might be stopped in its track, because the last gate has just been passed, but the next is still some months away.
I acknowledge that there are workarounds, as calling for a special gate, but these are just workarounds.
2) Event-based Gate setup
I am a big fan of event-based gate setups, because in my book this setup avoids all the problems you can have with the time-based version and only has the small disadvantage to have to think.
When doing an event-based gate setup you are looking for moments in the life of a project, where a maximum of information has been gathered before and a decision about how to go on is required. Typically, this would correspond to a milestone in your project planning.
To illustrate this point let’s say you are building a factory. A good moment for a gate could be, when the factory layout is finished and before the machinery is ordered and the implementation work starts. At this point in time the management can have an expert look at the plans and formally release the layout, check if nothing important has been omitted and give the GO for the next phase. The investments and actions would be difficult to reverse once started and so it’s worth to have a close look.
I hope you get the point.
3) Hybrid Gate setup
The hybrid Gate setup is a compromise between the 2 versions above. You have gates at certain events, where you do standard gates, but if the space between two events is too long, you decide to have an intermediate time based gate for example every 6 months to check into the project if everything is running smoothly and if there are no problems you should be aware of.
What to avoid in a project plan when using the Gate Process?
I have talked about the subject of the Definition of Done in lengths in my previous articles and it plays a role in here.
What you don’t want to see in your project plan is tasks which start before a Gate and are finished after. Why? Because in order to evaluate the real status of a project, an ongoing task is just not acceptable, as it does not give you any valid information. Even if the team member says, it’s finished to 80% this means nothing.
So, what you want to insist on is, that all the tasks are planned in a way that they end at the Gate with a defined state and re-start after the Gate if needed. This is one technique to avoid Watermelon projects (see my article on this subject: „Beware of Watermelons!„)
When preparing a Gate presentation, it’s best to use a template where the values of the current project can be filled in and with a handful of empty slides for project specific items.
This will serve you two-fold. First you get a recognisable presentation and it’s easier to find the information required to make educated decisions and second it avoids that every project manager re-invents the wheel at each gate.
How to handle Deviation?
Seriously, will there be deviations? Yes, you’ll have those. Thinking that everything will run smoothly and at every gate all the traffic signs are green means deceiving yourself.
Basically, there are 3 possible scenarios:
The project is blocked by some requirement, request or other kind of problem that can only be solved by a management decision. For example, the first phase showed that the resources foreseen for the second part of the project are not sufficient. Then a management decision could be to add additional resources in order to allow in time execution.
Not all the tasks of the first part of the project have been done, for whatever reasons. Some tasks are still in ongoing mode. In this case the project manager will have to present, how and when these tasks will be finished.
The decision for this gate will then be a GO under conditions and a follow up gate must be scheduled where the project manager has to prove that these tasks are now in Done status and what the outcome of these tasks was. This can also be done in writing and not through a formal presentation, but if you want to avoid surprises this information MUST be delivered to the management at a date defined during the gate.
Some important requirements during the phase have not been fulfilled. In this case the gate serves to reconsider the management position and to decide what to do. If the decision is No Go, but you consider that the project is still worth it, then I recommend scheduling a full follow-up gate as soon as the required status is reached.
If you decide that the project is no longer worth doing it you go into the close project process, about which I will talk about in a later article.
Ok, that’s the Gate process. In this article, I’ve given you its advantages and told how to set up the Gates for your projects. Now it’s your time to take action. Check in with your projects and analyse where in your projects would be a good time (or event) to set a gate. If you don’t have a Gate Process installed yet, then it’s time to set up one to relieve the management from management stress and discharge the project manager.
If you already have one, I would love to hear how it is working and if there are some tweaks that you can add to make it work? Please leave your questions and comments below or on the social media.
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Now, go below to the comments, ask your questions or let’s start a discussion! I will be glad to help and as you already know I answer all questions.