Phase-Gate Process in Project Management: A Quick Guide

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Whenever there’s a project, there should be a plan. There are many different ways to plan a project, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Choosing the right planning method ultimately depends on the complexity of your project and your organization.

When you have a long-term project that needs to be evaluated regularly, and you’re dealing with numerous stakeholders, the phase-gate process could be an ideal fit for your organization.

What is the Phase-Gate Process?

Similar to the waterfall methodology, the phase-gate process is a linear project management concept punctuated by stages of development followed by benchmarks for assessment. Developed in the 1940s for large-scale engineering projects, this process has been used by many organizations driven by a need for quick, product-to-market launches.

The phase-gate process is ideal for projects that involve large teams across multiple departments, as it is designed to handle many spinning plates in a short amount of time. It is typically used for new product developments, software/app/website launches and business-wide changes. For the rest of the blog, we’ll discuss the process in a product development setting.

Stages of the Phase-Gate Process

As a collaboration-driven process, phase-gate enables input and iteration in a short timeframe. Though it can be customized to include as many stages as needed, it is notable for five key steps. These steps are designed to prevent the project from continuing to the next phase without buy-in from key stakeholders.

Ideation

Before we define the five phases, every project is kickstarted with a preliminary ideation phase. It’s during this phase that the project actually starts to take shape.

Stakeholders will gather into breakout sessions and participate in group brainstorming meetings. At this point, anything goes, and inspiration can come from anywhere. Once the idea becomes more concrete, key stakeholders will gather and discuss the resources needed, the project scope and the financial buy-in required to make this project a success. 

Phase 1: Scoping

Think of this phase as the pre-construction phase. The company now has a new product/business opportunity in mind with an outline on how to achieve that, but it’s in this phase where stakeholders take a critical look at the viability of it. Identifying strengths and weaknesses of the product will help stakeholders take a 360-degree view of the new project.

It’s also during this phase that you determine risk factors. Examine how detrimental a product launch could mean for your place in the market, if this brings in any new competitors and if so, identify which ones ahead of time. Take a look at how the competitors have reacted in the past to understand how they might react to your new project. 

Again, at the end of every phase is the opportunity to have leadership decide on whether or not to kill the project or continue forward.

Phase 2: Building the Case Plan

This phase is similar to the ideation phase or the scoping phase but is different in that more concrete plans come together here. Think of this as the backbone of your entire project.

This phase is typically resource-intensive and includes four key steps: 

  1. Define & Analyze Your Product: This is where you build upon research from Phase 1 and include data such as target demographics, if this fills a customer need currently unmet by anyone else on the market, etc.
  2. Build your Business Case: This builds upon the research from phase 1 by defining your product and the reason for building it. Learn more about the business case.
  3. Build your Project Plan: Think of this as a project plan within a project plan. This includes a list of tasks, resources, a timeline, etc.
  4. Review the Feasibility: Consider all risks and assess the resources, time and money needed to make this project happen successfully, and review if it’s possible.

Phase 3: Development

This is where all key stakeholders and investors get started. The dev team starts developing; the copy team starts writing, and the design team starts designing. It’s in this phase where all the details of the project have been mostly ironed out, and the product really starts to take shape. This is also known as the prototype phase.

Phase 4: Testing & Validation

This phase effectively acts as the quality assurance phase. Bugs are ironed out; edits are made to the prototype, and final touches are made on all design and copy.

It’s also in this phase where you can do some light market/field testing. Get a group together of people unrelated to the company and have them test out the user experience of the product that you’re building out.

Phase 5: Go-to-Market 

After all of the stakeholders have signed off on the product, everything has been tested for quality assurance, and the product is launched, this is where product managers and leadership review the success of the phase-gate process. What were the successes of the product? What were areas that could be improved upon both on a team-specific level and a company-wide level? 

How to Build Out Your Gates

When designing effective gates for your phase-gate process, start by creating a checklist. These can mimic your Key Performance Indicators. Each point on the checklist will be scored on a 0-10 scale, and once tallied, will help stakeholders and leadership quickly decide on whether to go/kill.

Remember, this will happen after each phase. So make sure the checklist is broad enough to apply to all the phases but specific enough to cover project-related questions.

Most items in a checklist ask questions of strategic, technical, or operational importance, such as:

  1. Does this align with our business strategy?
  2. Does this provide unique benefits to our customers?
  3. Does this meet our customers’ needs?
  4. Will this provide value to both us and our customers from a monetary standpoint?
  5. Does this match our market size?
  6. Will this allow for market growth?
  7. What is the technical uncertainty/risk?
  8. What is the timeline of the payback period?
  9. What will the support and operation be?

Phase-Gate Process Example: Launching a Website

Below is an example of some of the phases you might use if you were launching a website. There should be a gate at the end of each phase below, allowing for assessment.

phase-gate process example

Advantages & Disadvantages of Phase-Gate

Phase-gate is brilliant in that it eliminates ad-hoc changes and unplanned edits to the product. It also acts as a single hive-mind for your entire team, creating an atmosphere of structured creativity with built-in room for planned innovation. While the phase-gate process is similar to the Waterfall method in the way that it maps out a linear path forward, its major difference is that it doesn’t rely on a calendarized or static project list. 

Good for Large Companies

It’s especially advantageous for large companies of 10,000 or more people where multiple stakeholders involved have the ability to go/kill the project at any gate, as it reduces the risk of outlier opinions throwing the project off-course.

Not only does this allow for a more seamless product launch, but it also leaves room for valuing employees, giving your staff a sense of achievement. 

Its primary advantage is its speed. The phase-gate process is incredible at keeping employees on task. With the right information they need to complete the project in an incredibly short amount of time, this saves your company in money and resources it could instead allocate elsewhere.

The Downside

So what’s the disadvantage? When your company has too many cooks in the kitchen, the phase-gate process can be a chore. When too many stakeholders are in every meeting, present during every phase and every gate, conflicting opinions can become cumbersome and inhibit the creative process.

Be sure to have leadership agree on creative goals from the outset so that the phase-gate process can leave room for creativity up to the creatives.

Best Practices for Implementing Phase-Gate

In order to make a phase-gate process roll out effectively and efficiently, the doors for cross-channel communication shouldn’t just be open, they should be made easy for each team to chat with an adjacent team quickly, easily and successfully. This also means keeping meetings engaging, interactive and necessary for all who are involved.

The best part about phase-gate is that if a problem becomes too big, the project has many opportunities—gates—to shut down the process. So any conflict or issues that might arise have already been anticipated and conflict can be mitigated at many different levels. 

How ProjectManager.com Can Help the Phase-Gate Process

When building out the phase-gate process, many companies rely on clunky, outdated tools to create their roadmaps. With ProjectManager.com, you have access to an easy-to-use Gantt chart to build out phases and gates for a more effective roadmap for large projects across many teams.

gantt chart for phase-gate planning
ProjectManager.com’s online Gantt chart

You can also set milestones and dependencies so nothing goes forward until a decision has been made to go to the next phase. Additionally, you have the ability to share documents quickly, collaborate on project phases, and make the process a little less meeting-heavy.

The phase-gate process is a lengthy undertaking, one that requires a powerful tool. Projectmanager.com is a cloud-based project management software that lets you easily plan, schedule and manage your projects online. Start your free 30-day trial today.

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