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4.9 Control phase gates

Control phase gates

This section is about controlling activities at boundaries between project phases.

The purpose of dividing a project into phases is to be able to have phase-gate reviews. They are also widely known as stage-gates, kill-points, phase-reviews, hand offs, and transition-points to name just a few of multiple widely used conventions.

Regardless of the choice of name, phase-gate reviews occur at the end of each phase and their purpose is to allow the project board to evaluate the ending phase, take an informed decision whether to proceed to the next phase and if yes to approve the planning of that next phase. Finally, there are administrative activities associated to phase closure.

Planning of the next phase

Let us start with the planning of the next phase as this planning is the basis for the evaluation of the closing phase.

Each phase must have a phase planning issued at the phase gate of the previous phase. For the first phase it is done after the project plan is approved. Closing the last phase falls together with closure of the entire project. We will handle project closure in a separate lesson.

The phase planning is an abbreviated version of the project management plan, focusing on the deliverables and activities of the upcoming phase. There should be a phase goal, measurable objectives, deliverables, stakeholders’ identification and analysis, risk identification, analysis and answering, the detailed decomposition of the project WBS for the phase, a schedule with the appropriate level of detail for the phase, and the proportioned phase budget.

Another aspect of the planning the next phase is the validation of assumptions and constraints that the previous planning was based on. Assumptions and constraints are essential to every plan.

Evaluation of the ending phase

The evaluation of the closing phase is made on the base of the phase plan.

The core of the evaluation is the achievement of the phase objectives materialised in the delivery of the phase scope, in time and in budget.

A practical way to demonstrate this compliance is via the Earned Value Analysis. As a phase end should fall at completion of major deliverables, it is a good point in time for this analysis and it would not show deliverables in progress. Otherwise, the phase end would not be well established or a deliverable in progress should have been broken down in a way that the phase end falls together with the components that are completed in the closing phase.

The Earned Value Analysis will show if all deliverables of the phase have been completed with which Cost Performance and Schedule Performance Indices. If CPI and SPI are equal to 1 for all deliverables of the phase, then the phase objectives have been met fully. A variance would talk about a certain degree of success lower or higher than 100%.

A satisfaction survey of appropriate stakeholders should complete the evaluation, focusing on the satisfaction with the work of the project team as each deliverable has its own acceptance criteria. For instance: did we provide professional answers timely? Have we been easily reachable? Were problems resolved in a professional manner? Was it pleasant to work with us?

Lessons learned is another activity of great value to an organization that is conducted as part of phase closing. Actually, lessons learned is a team exercise that should be done even more frequently than at phase closure only. Retrospective meetings can be held when the team reaches any milestone. A phase is an important milestone. But there are also intermediate milestones in each phase that should be used for retrospective meetings. In no case should we wait for the end of the project to reflect about what could have been done better. It is too late then. One great practice Agile teams have popularized is the use retrospectives at the end of each iteration which lasts typically two weeks.

First and foremost, a retrospective is not about blame and culprits; the retrospective is a time for the team to learn from previous work and make small improvements. The retrospective is not about inspecting the product. This is done in a deliverable review meeting as explained in the lesson about defining, delegating, and approving work packages.

If lessons learned has been done in that way, now at phase closing we do not need to start from scratch trying to identify lessons learned weeks ago – or even months ago if it is a large project with long lasting phases. Instead, when doing a phase retrospective, the team can leverage the fundus of lessons learned throughout the phase. Remember that lessons learned should be documented, and the phase closure provides a good opportunity to distil and capture the most important ones.

The two key questions are: what was done well? And what could have been done better?

The benefits are obvious: improving team performance and even having a happier life.

Decide whether to proceed to the next phase.

The decision whether to proceed to the next phase is analysed form two angles.

One angle is the forecast shown in the Earned Value Analysis. If the forecast is negative, the project board may decide to cancel the project or to reduce the scope to realize a partial benefit, given the unfavourable development.

The second angle is the business case review. The business case was used as the basis to initiate the project. Assumptions and high-level estimates of delivery time and costs were made to estimate benefits. Now, at phase closure, with real data and forecasts from the Earned Value Analysis, it is time to update the business case and use it as an input to the project board to confirm or not the continuation of the project.

Unfortunately, too many projects continue to progress for months if not years expending organizational resources and efforts only to end up with a result that is very different from what was projected in the initial business case. The project management team can avoid such failure by ensuring that the project is still in alignment with the organization’s strategic objectives. This can be achieved through a periodic validation of the project and its business case, during a phase-gate review. The findings of this exercise may lead to any of the following three outcomes:

  • Termination of the project.
  • Proceeding with the project as is.
  • Modifying the business case and/or the project.

A decision not to proceed is not necessarily a failure. Projects can go wrong or can be affected by the external factors that invalidate the business justification; or simply the organization has now other priorities and the resources dedicated to the project are now needed for other initiatives. A failure is carrying on with the project when there is evidence that it is better not to do so.

Administrative closure

The most important element of the administrative closure is the confirmation that the deliverables of the phase have been formally accepted and transitioned to the corresponding organization. If the deliverable transitioned is a final deliverable the receptor is the customer. This would be the case if the project delivers the product in increments. If the deliverable is a component to a larger deliverable in production, the receptor is the new team for whom the deliverable of the ending phase is an input in the next phase.

Note that not the acceptance of deliverables itself is part of phase closing activities. Each deliverable must have been formally accepted as explained in the section about “defining, delegating and accepting work packages”. What you do in phase closing is confirming that the acceptance has taken place. There must be a document serving as evidence of acceptance of each deliverable. Should any acceptance document be missing, now it is time to get it.

Another important administrative element of closing a phase is releasing team resources not needed in the next phase to pursue new endeavours. Part of the releasing activities are performance evaluations. If necessary, review the section about the project manager’s activities during the “adjourning stage” in the lesson about “developing the team.” And resources are not only human resources. Also, project facilities, equipment, excess material, and other physical resources that will no longer be needed should be reallocated or discontinued.

If there were external suppliers working for the project, the project manager verifies that both parties have completed their contractual obligations toward each other, and if not, fulfilling all such obligations. Agreement on open claims should be reached and if not handed over to the legal department. Performance evaluation of the supplier takes place.

Other activities of administrative closure include:

  • Archiving project information
  • Assuring that all project logs are updated, such as the issues, lessons learned, risks and change logs.

Let us summarize recalling that the purpose of controlling phase gates is to allow the project board to evaluate the ending phase, take an informed decision whether to proceed to the next phase and if yes to approve the planning of that next phase.

Administrative closure activities are performed.

Lessons learned at intermediate milestones are leveraged and new lessons are learned from the perspective of looking back at the entire phase.