Signing-off Stage Boundaries

Whether you call them Gateways, Stage-gates, stage boundaries or just gates, the concept of a sign-off point at the end of a project stage is well-established. And the metaphor is pretty simple too: you cannot get to the next stage without crossing the boundary or going through the gate.

This makes gateways a vital part of project governance, where two key decisions are made:

  1. Are we ready to continue?
    And, if we are…
  2. Should we continue?

A lot of the organisations I work with struggle with thinking through the amount of formality of these stage-gates. Should it be an informal project team review (caution but no real governance component) or a big assessment carried out by external monitors?

Not surprisingly, the answer is: ‘it depends’. Here are some of the factors I recommend that you consider:

  1. The culture of your organisation
  2. Your appetite for risk
  3. The level of risk, for which some good proxies will include:
    • Criticality to your organisation
    • Complexity of solution
    • Novelty and level of technical innovation
    • Scale and expenditure level
    • Pace of change required
      – but don’t automatically assume fast-pace demands light governance
  4. Consequences of failure

Instinctively, I prefer a more structured governance process. It is not just that the more formal review leads to better decisions and that decisions always trump assumptions. Taking time to stop and think – for the project team and for an at-least-partially independent reviewer can lead to valuable insights. But this does not mean a heavy handed, time-consuming approach. Let’s take a look at the two questions a boundary reviewer needs to answer.

Are we ready to continue?

Make the review process simple by developing a checklist of evidence that will demonstrate completion of each stage. This will consist of two components:

  1. A core checklist of required inputs for each stage that is generic to all projects within your organisation
  2. A tailored set of additions, modifications and deletions that is produced during the definition stage of each project and signed-off at the first gateway review.

Should we continue?

Again, this can be reduced to a simple set of questions about the viability of the project:

  1. How has the external environment changed since this stage started? And how does this affect the viability of what we want to do?
  2. How has our understanding of our project changed since this stage started? And how does this affect the viability of what we want to do?
  3. Do we have robust estimates of the resource and time requirements for the next stage?
  4. Do we have the right resources to complete the subsequent stages? And is this project the best use of those resources?
  5. How confident are we that we can complete the subsequent stages on target, on time and on budget?
  6. How confident are we that the output of the subsequent stages have a value that exceeds the costs and resources they will need?

When you think about it, why would you not want to know the answers to these questions?

Who should be making these decisions?

I would like to see more organisations appoint decision makers for project stage-gates whose jobs depend on making these decisions well. Note that I do not think their jobs should ever depend on their being right – just on taking the decision with due care and attention to the evidence. These therefore need to be people with the level of experience and seniority that is consistent with understanding the situation, fearlessly interrogating the facts, and signing-off on the levels of expenditure and resource commitment concerned.

How good is your project governance against these criteria?

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