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Dealing with Gate Saboteurs

We've all encountered them, those politically motivated creatures who only surface for critical gate meetings so they can point out deficiencies in your project and so bring their superior skills and expertise to the notice of senior executives at your expense. If you haven't encountered this animal yet you will, as long as you continue to manage projects and hold gate meetings. If you have, you have experienced the pain of having to explain yourself to those senior executives who are now spooked by your saboteur's criticisms without any prior preparation. In either case this article is for you.

The pre-Gate Meeting

Your best defence is a good offence. Head trouble off at the pass by holding a pre-Gate meeting. The pre-Gate meeting should be conducted with the same agenda as the Gate meeting but with a smaller cast of attendees. Only the team and those stakeholders who are involved with the deliverables, milestones, and resources delivered by the project phase should be invited. Hopefully the only difference in attendance lists will be the addition of the project sponsor and other executives for the formal Gate meeting and this will attract all the potential saboteurs. Hold the pre-Gate close enough to the Gate meeting date so that you have all the information available that you would need to conduct the Gate meeting. All the work won't be finished of course, but you should be in a position to know to a certainty whether it will or won't finish on time. The trick here is to hold the pre-Gate far enough in advance so that you can correct any problems that surface, but near enough to the Gate meeting date that you know that the work will be completed on time. A date of between 1 and 2 weeks in advance should be suitable in most cases.

Appraise your sponsor that you are taking this approach and your reasons for taking it. Your reason for taking this approach will be to head potential Gate saboteurs off at the pass, but the value of the pre-Gate meeting is to identify any minor problems that would impact on your ability to meeting Gating criteria and solve them before your Gate meeting. Advising your sponsor of your plan will allow you to ask for their help in getting full attendance to your pre-Gate meeting. Resources who report to the sponsor can have their activities prioritized by the sponsor so that they are free to attend. Your sponsor may be able to influence their peers so that stakeholders who don't report to them, also have their activities prioritized.

Review the list of stakeholders in your Communications Management Plan and ensure everyone who either owes deliverables to the phase, or who is a recipient of deliverables from the phase is included on the invitee list. Don't forget to include those who will be providing resources to the next project phase. To ensure full attendance at the meeting, issue your first invitation at least 1 week in advance of the meeting date. Put the meeting in your attendees calendars where possible. Make sure that the participants know that attendance is not optional. You may have to juggle dates here to ensure that everyone has the meeting time slot free and that's what makes access to the participants' calendars such an advantage. It may not be possible to choose a date and time that is suitable for all attendees, in which case an alternate or substitute may have to do. The substitute should be someone who is empowered to make decisions by the stakeholder and who is knowledgeable about the stakeholders issues.

Conduct the pre-Gate as you would the actual Gate meeting. Address each item in the agenda and review the status of each deliverable, and deadline belonging to the current project phase and each resource that must be in place for the next phase. Where the deliverable is not produced yet, assess the likelihood of its readiness in time for the Gate meeting (or the end of the project phase).

The project Action Register or Issue Log is a critical tool for this meeting. Issues that arise from items in the agenda should be captured in the Register or Log. Remember that the key here is the action that will address the issue, not the issue, so ensure that an action is identified and a prime assigned to the action. Your pre-Gate meeting should not just be about flushing out issues from stakeholders, look for issues that team members identify that might prevent them having their work finished in time. The fact that you have everyone at your pre-Gate that will be at the actual Gate, with the exception of the sponsor and other executives, should ensure that issues that could prevent a smooth Gate meeting will be captured and addressed before that meeting. You would think......

The Gate Meeting

The purpose of the Gate meeting is to assess your project's readiness to proceed from the current phase to the next phase. Valid reasons for the project not proceeding to the next phase cannot be ignored simply because they are raised for the first time at this meeting instead of at the pre-Gate where they could have been addressed. Besides, there may be legitimate reasons that issues are raised at the Gate meeting for the first time - the stakeholder may simply have been unaware of the issue at the pre-Gate meeting. When this is not the case, however, it will soon become apparent to the room. When the reason for raising the issue at the Gate meeting is for a perceived political advantage, the sabotage will be revealed.

Gate meeting attendees who fail to attend your pre-Gate, or send a substitute, and then raise a "Gating" issue at your Gate meeting will be revealed before your sponsor (you will have made their absence at your pre-Gate known to them in advance of the Gate meeting). The culprit is unlikely to make this mistake a second time if you have an effective sponsor. Sponsors with forceful personalities will make the culprit excruciatingly uncomfortable. The conversation will go something like this: "Was this issue made known at the pre-Gate?" "Well, no, I couldn't because I couldn't be there....." "If this issue is that important why wouldn't you be at the pre-Gate?" "If we had known of the issue then, it would be resolved by now".

Let your sponsor carry the conversation if they are willing. If you have done a good job of preparing them for the meeting and educated them on the purpose of your pre-Gate, they will be willing. Where your sponsor is unwilling, don't let the ambush throw you. Treat it the situation professionally by capturing it in your Action Register/Issue Log, along with an appropriate action and assign the action to someone in the room. If the appropriate prime is not in the room, you will own the item. Don't worry about the impression your saboteur is making on the sponsor, executives, or other stakeholders in the room. The other stakeholders will recognize the behaviour for what it is, they were at your pre-Gate meeting after all. The sponsor knows what's what, you have prepped them. The other executives in the room will be informed by your sponsor.

Action Registers/Issue Logs

Action registers or issue logs should be diligently kept and reviewed with the stakeholders throughout the project. A review of the register with the stakeholders between the pre-Gate meeting and the Gate meeting will give them an opportunity to identify a legitimate issue as soon as they become aware of it, avoiding an ambush in the Gate meeting, unless that is their intention.

Escalation Path

All issues may not find their way into your action register/issue log through a review meeting. There may be times when an issue is identified that must be identified outside of a review meeting. Your Communications Management Plan should identify the escalation path for issues that fall into this category. Usually you will be the first escalation point. Having making this avenue available to the stakeholders to address their issues and informing the stakeholders of it will close off another path for the potential saboteur. It is also good practice and will help resolve legitimate issues in a timely fashion.

The remedies I've described in this article are really only good project management practice. The value of them in these situations is that in implementing these good practices in your project, you demonstrate to the stakeholders, the sponsor, and other executives that you know what you are doing and are managing the project properly. This will stand you in good stead when the determined saboteur speaks out at your Gate meeting in an attempt to discredit you; your audience will recognize the attempt for what it is and your reputation will survive intact.