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Gate Decisions

Many courses on project management leave one with the sense that reaching a decision on moving a project forward to the next phase at agate meeting is a straightforward step: either the previous phase has delivered everything planned for delivery and resources are in place to begin the next phase, or they have not been delivered and/or resources are not in place. In reality this state of "black or white" is almost never encountered in a project and the project manager must deal with shades of gray and nuances in coming to the decision.

Let's first address the question of available gate decisions. There are actually 3 decisions available to you: pass, pass contingent on an action or actions, and fail. The first 2 decisions enable all or part of the work on the next phase to begin. The last one means that the project schedule be delayed until the gate passes, or the project is aborted. Delaying the schedule usually means additional costs and may not be palatable to your customer or client. For this reason, an outright failure should be a last resort. Canning a project which does not have a chance of delivering the sought after benefits is the right action to take but you need to make absolutely certain this is the case before proposing it as an outcome of a gate meeting. You will want to discuss this with the project's executive sponsor or steering committee before unleashing it at the gate meeting.

There are more than 2 "right" decisions that can be reached at your gate meeting. This follows from the fact that not all criteria can be viewed as black or white. Project managers who choose to view gate meetings in simplistic terms will fail to spot opportunities to move the project forward and address problems preventing the project from meeting its goals and objectives. Recognizing that something other than an unqualified meeting of each criteria the decision depends on is possible, while still moving the project forward is a necessary strategy. Being flexible here will move your project forward where being inflexible will waste time and money.

Think of it this way; a gate where every deliverable has been completed calls for perfect planning and execution! Having all the resources in place necessary to execute the next phase not only calls for perfect planning and execution, it also calls for a perfect prediction of the future.

Let's examine the criteria for passing the gate first. Gating criteria for the final gate of the project is a special case (there is no "next" phase for one thing), so we'll deal with that gate at the end of this article. The criteria for every other gate can be logically divided into 2 categories: previous phase deliverables and next phase resources. The deliverables should be complete and delivered to the project. Those that are to be given over to the project's customers or clients should be accepted and those that are internal to the project should be ready for work in the next phase. Must every deliverable that was planned for in the current phase be completed before the project can move forward with the next phase? Obviously not. Are there any deliverables that must be complete? Obviously. The trick is to distinguish the "deal breakers" from the non-critical deliverables. Deal breaking deliverables should be those that meet the following criteria:

  • A deliverable that prevents work beginning on the next phase
  • A deliverable that would cause significant extra work in the next phase
  • A set of deliverables that meet the above criteria

Projects which are significantly enough behind schedule to warrant altering the schedule should cause the schedule for the gate to slip, the project manager should never go into that meeting without having prepared stakeholders for this outcome. Even when a failed gate necessitates a slippage, you should plan to begin as much of the next phase's work on time as possible so as to waste the least possible time and money. The objective should be to identify the corrective action before the gate meeting, or at least to have the corrective action identified and communicated to the stakeholders before the meeting so agreement on it can be reached at the gate meeting.

  • A similar list of criteria can be identified for the next project phase:
  • A key human resource is unavailable to begin work on the next phase
  • A key resource or tool is unavailable to the next phase
  • A significant number of human resources or materials is unavailable to the next phase
  • Key training for work on the next phase has not been delivered
  • The plan for the next phase is not in place, or has not been approved

Failure to meet any of these criteria would cause the gate to fail. Failure to meet any of these criteria would also mean that the schedule would slip. The same approach should be taken with a schedule slippage as is taken with the previous phase.

Assuming that your project has produced all the key deliverables planned and they have been accepted by your customers, or they are available for work in the next phase, the gate should be passed. The pass may not be unconditional, if there is any work that must be done to complete any planned deliverables, or any work that must be completed to make resources or materials available to the next phase the pass should be made contingent on these being completed. To this end the project manager should keep an action register for the gate meeting (either a separate register or the project action register), the necessary actions identified and assigned, and a due date set. The project manager should follow up with the stakeholders and keep them informed as action items are completed and finally when all actions have been completed and the gate passes unconditionally. Examples of deliverables that should not fail a gate might include failure to install one of 100 outlets in a house to complete electrical work, or failure to bring an ATM on-line for a project delivering 1400 installed ATMs.

There are few guidelines to use to determine the criticality of a deliverable so the project manager may have to take guidance from the decision makers on how critical the deliverable is and perception may play an important role in making that decision. The project manager should not sweat a decision that a deliverable they regard as minor is a key one to the stakeholders. Keep in mind that the difference between a contingent pass and a fail is typically an additional gate meeting to be held when the critical deliverable is ready.

Resources and materials for the next project phase are even more forgiving than deliverables from the previous phase. To begin with, only those resources and materials that are required for work to begin immediately following the gate need to be in place. Those that are required for work scheduled to begin at a later date need only be on track to meet those dates. What is necessary to pass the gate is the plan for the next phase. Without this plan, the gate should fail and only pass when the plan is ready. An example of a non-critical resource or material might be failure to train 1 of 100 QA testers, or the lack of 50 feet of 5/8" copper pipe out of a total of 5,000 feet. Projects that fail on this scale should be given a pass contingent on the deficiency being made up. Actions should be identified and tracked as previously described. Projects where the stakeholders feel strongly that the resource or material missing is critical to the project should be failed and a subsequent gate meeting held and the gate passed when the deficiency is made up. Critical materials or resources should only include those required immediately after the gate meeting.

Gate meetings which mark the closeout of the project are a special case. There will be no next project phase so this category of gating criteria can be ignored. Since the decision is whether to close the project out or not, more emphasis will be placed on deliverables having been put into the hands of the customer and accepted. This decision may be driven by the statement of work; the criteria for acceptance of all the project deliverables may be spelled out in the Statement of Work (SOW) and your deliverables have either all been accepted and you are ready for closeout, or they have not and you are not ready.

You should ensure that all conditions in the SOW are met on time where there will be a penalty incurred for late closeout. Don't hesitate to delay a closeout gate meeting otherwise. There will be no extra costs or schedule slippages incurred by delaying the gate; resources who have completed their work can be disengaged and only those necessary to finish incomplete work retained. You should come to an agreement ahead of this meeting on what constitutes a sufficient state of completeness to pass the gate and issue final payments, if this is not spelled out in the SOW. Be prepared to decide on a conditional pass where there is little work left to do. Don't re-schedule a meeting just to inform everyone that the final outlet has been installed in the new house and you are now in a position to pass the gate unconditionally.

Final Thoughts

The project manager should keep in mind that the most important decision to the entity that is paying for the project is whether there is a valid business case for doing the project. The initial decision is always that it is, otherwise there would be no project. The business case needs to be validated throughout the project, not just at gate meetings. The project should be phased out as soon as the business case is no longer valid, or it becomes apparent that the project is not feasible. This decision is greater in scope than the gate meeting so it should be made outside that forum.

Decisions on whether the project is ready to proceed to the next project phase are appropriate for the gate meeting. These decisions should always be made in the context of a project with a valid business case and the decision should enable the project to deliver the benefits promised by the business case for a minimum amount of money and in as little time as possible. Any decision involving a failure will cause a subsequent gate meeting to be scheduled and the decision makers re-convened; this should only be done in extreme circumstances. Most decisions will include some form of follow up that ties up the loose ends that prevent the project from being 100% ready. The project manager should be ready for this and steer the decision towards the most practical decision. It is very likely that the decision which best suits your project will be a conditional or contingent pass as it is unlikely that all work has been completed to the customer's satisfaction. This is especially true in large, complex projects. Be prepared to identify the actions necessary to complete the work to the customer's satisfaction and capture these actions in the action register while informing stakeholders of the conditional pass and the actions necessary to reach completion.

The tips and tricks described here are all in alignment with the information in the Integration Management knowledge are of the PMBOK. I would recommend that any project manager who has not become certified as a PMP® (Project Management Professional take the time to take PMP® Exam Preparation training, or a PMP® Course and sit the exam. The three O web site contains an excellent product, AceIt, which has helped PMs from around the world pass their exams.