phase-gate process

An introduction to the phase-gate process

Reading time: about 7 min

Topics:

  • Agile and project planning

As a project manager, you have a plethora of methodologies to choose from. Many of these, like Agile, Waterfall, Scrum, Lean, Kanban, and extreme programming, have been discussed in other blog posts. Each methodology comes with its own principles and techniques designed to help your teams optimize their product development efforts.

No two projects are the same, and project management doesn’t provide a one-size-fits-all approach. Understanding several different project management methodologies should help you determine which is best suited for your specific projects, industry, and product types.

In this post, we’ll discuss the phase-gate process, the phase-gate model, how it works, and its benefits and challenges.

What is phase-gate in project management, and how does it work?

The phase-gate process (also known as the waterfall process or stage-gate process) is a structured project management methodology that helps you to move initiatives or projects through distinct phases in a linear, sequential fashion. 

The concept of working on a project in phases is not new. A phased approach to project management can be traced to the 1940s when it was used on large-scale mechanical and chemical engineering projects. In the 1960s, NASA used a phased process that included reviews between each phase to determine whether the project could proceed to the next.

While it has been refined over the years and adapted to a variety of industries, how the phase-gate methodology works remains basically the same.

Project phases

Divide your project or initiative (new product, software development, process improvement, business change, etc.) into phases. How you label these phases and how many phases you include will vary depending on your project's needs. A typical phase-gate process might include these five common phases: scoping, building a business case, development, testing and validation, and launch. We’ll dive deeper into these phases later.

For each phase, define the specific tasks, goals, deliverables, and criteria that must be completed before the project can proceed to the next phase.

Gates

A checkpoint, known as a gate, is placed at the end of each phase. These gates are critical to making informed decisions about the project. Gates allow the team to review and evaluate the work that was done in the previous phase. During a gate review, your team can evaluate things like:

  • Phase completion: Have all the tasks in this phase been completed? Have all the goals and objectives been met?

  • Risk assessment: Are there unresolved risks that need to be addressed?

  • Resource allocation: Does the project have the resources (budget, hardware, materials, and employees) to stay on track?

  • Go/no-go decision: This is where you decide if the project should proceed to the next phase.

If the work in that phase meets all the criteria, the project can pass through the gate to the next. Otherwise, the team continues to work until the phase is considered complete.

Stages of the phase-gate process

A phase-gate model can be customized to include as many phases as needed to complete your project. Additionally, there are no rules dictating what you must name each phase. All that really matters is that there is a review gate following each phase.

Phase process

In this section, we’ll discuss some of the most common phases in a phase-gate process. 

  • Idea: This is a collaborative stage where stakeholders identify areas of opportunity. This is a creative stage that encourages input from everybody. A virtual collaborative tool like Lucidspark is perfect for bringing together a diverse and distributed team to organize thoughts and maximize brainstorm sessions.

  • Scoping: Analyze the feasibility of the new product or initiative you want to develop. A SWOT analysis can help you understand your idea’s strengths and weaknesses and determine whether it is worth pursuing. A market analysis can help you get a better picture of how your product might compare to similar products.

  • Business case: A strong business case can help you gain buy-in from management and other stakeholders. Your business case should include project details, needed resources, an estimated budget, potential risks or problems, and mitigation plans.

  • Development: In this phase, you turn your idea into a tangible product or a viable process. Detailed designs, workflows, wireframes, prototypes, and other related activities are developed.

  • Testing and validation: Internal and external tests to validate functionality and ensure that the product meets quality standards are crucial to gaining acceptance from potential customers.

  • Launch: In this stage, you are getting ready to make your product available in the market. You’ll want to create a launch plan to help your release go smoothly. A marketing strategy that can generate interest and excitement among potential customers is essential.

Gate review process

The gate review helps you decide whether the project can proceed to the next phase. The decision is determined by a set of criteria defined in each phase. These criteria might include the following, but you can always customize your criteria to meet your needs.

  • Phase completion: The team evaluates the work completed in the previous phase. You might ask questions like:

    • Did the completed work meet all of the defined goals and objectives?

    • Does the work meet quality standards?

    • Are there tasks that need to be modified or tested further?

  • Business rationale: You want to ensure that there is a business rationale for continuing the project. You can use this review to identify parts of the project that need to be dropped because they are no longer relevant or to scrap the entire project if it doesn’t make business sense.

  • Action plan: This part of the review ensures that you have everything you need to keep the project going. This includes the budget and resource allocation (hardware, software, materials, employees, etc.).

After reviewing the completed phase, it’s time to decide your next step. Your decisions might include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Go/no-go: Should the project move to the next phase? A no-go decision might require further review to determine what needs to be done to get the project through the gate. It does not mean that the project is dead.

  • Kill: This decision means the project is dead. Something in the review indicates that there is no good reason to continue investing resources in it.

  • Hold: The project is put on hold, and might still have the potential to start up again later. For now, no more resources will be allocated to the project.

What are the benefits of using the phase-gate process?

The structured framework of the phase-gate process offers several benefits that can help you to be more successful in product management and product development. Benefits include:

  • Risk mitigation: Each review gate should include an assessment of potential risks. This can make your team more proactive in finding and addressing potential problems before they become big problems.

  • Better resource management: Reviewing each phase ensures that resources are allocated to the right areas in each phase so you can optimize the workflow and reduce waste.

  • More flexibility: Phase-gate is a structured approach that lets your team respond quickly to changing circumstances.

  • Improved collaboration: This methodology encourages cross-functional teams to collaborate during each phase. Lucidspark facilitates collaboration with large, dispersed teams.

What are the challenges of using the phase-gate process?

As with a lot of different methodologies, phase-gate comes with a set of challenges, including:

  • Too much emphasis on process: The structure might seem too rigid for some employees. If you can’t find the right balance between structure and agility, this can slow down progress and lead to frustration.

  • Losing focus on the end goal: Too much process can inhibit creativity if team members focus on ticking off checkboxes rather than finding innovative solutions.

  • Process integration: Your phase-gate process will likely need to integrate with other processes in your organization. If you can’t find a way to integrate seamlessly with these processes, it could slow down the project and affect the work of other teams.

Let Lucidspark help you to manage your phase-gate process

The templates and tools available at Lucidspark make it easy to collaborate with teams of any size in any location. Use Lucidspark to brainstorm ideas, analyze the feasibility of your ideas, create wireframes and mockups, visualize process workflow, and more.

Explore our project planning templates for every industry and team.

Check them out

About Lucidspark

Lucidspark, a cloud-based virtual whiteboard, is a core component of Lucid Software's Visual Collaboration Suite. This cutting-edge digital canvas brings teams together to brainstorm, collaborate, and consolidate collective thinking into actionable next steps—all in real time. Lucid is proud to serve top businesses around the world, including customers such as Google, GE, and NBC Universal, and 99% of the Fortune 500. Lucid partners with industry leaders, including Google, Atlassian, and Microsoft. Since its founding, Lucid has received numerous awards for its products, business, and workplace culture. For more information, visit lucidspark.com.

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