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The Phase Gates Cheat Sheet: 4 Steps to Better-Managed Projects

~ By Kenneth Darter

Ninja Warrior design illustration

Play just about any video game and you'll eventually meet a Boss. The Boss is a big monster or extra-tough bad guy at the end of a really hard level that you have to beat in order to keep progressing in the game - or you're doomed.

Sometimes you have to level up a few times, find the doojigger or reverse the polarity before you can defeat the Boss monster (Doojigger is a scientific term meaning "something" - if you're curious). Once you get past the Boss, though, new worlds or new levels will be open to you. You can continue to explore and play the game.

In large projects, the customer or the project manager will often split the work into logical phases in order to better manage the overall scope of the project. Between the phases, there should be phase gates to assist the project team from moving from one phase to the next.

Even if the phases overlap, there should be a checkpoint to ensure the phase is completed correctly. While the project team shouldn't have to fight a troll or search for that doojigger - or, thank goodness, figure out what reversing the polarity means - they will need to work through the phase gates.

To get you through those gates (and avoid dooming your project), the cheat sheet for better-managed projects consists of four key steps.

1. Setting Expectations

The phase gate should be defined at the beginning of the project. While there will be changes throughout the lifecycle of the project - always - the client and the team should have a good understanding of the expectations for passing through a phase gate.

The project manager should communicate who will set the criteria for the phase gate and who will evaluate the project against that criteria. In addition, the project manager should build the phase gates into the schedule with the correct dependencies.

That way there's no conflict between the work in separate phases.

The client, then, must determine what happens if the project is unable to pass a phase gate - and how that impacts the work downstream.

2. Entrance Criteria

The entrance criteria for a phase gate should detail what tasks and milestones must be complete before the project can approach the phase gate (figuratively speaking).

There must be a set period of time where the project is being evaluated for completion of the work in one phase. The entrance criteria define when that evaluation can begin. There may be critical tasks that must be completed before the entrance criteria are met while other non-critical tasks are still being worked on.

3. Exit Criteria

The exit criteria are the most important part of a phase gate. The most important part - yes, it's that important that it bears repeating. Exit criteria define what threshold the project must meet in order to pass the phase gate.

Stakeholders and clients and the project manager should work to establish reasonable criteria and communicate them with the team. Whether the criteria detail how many defects are allowed, measure the quality of work samples or review the deliverables, the exit criteria should be well-defined. They should be clear to everyone involved on the project - including the customer.

4. The Evaluation

Once the project manager has established the entrance and exit criteria, the project team can proceed with the evaluation. This is the step where the criteria are compared to the actual progress of the project team.

The evaluation should be completed or assisted by someone who's impartial to the project. Why? That person can provide an objective opinion about whether the project can mark that phase completed.

In a video game, the evaluation would likely include some dramatic or upbeat music and then a big reveal when you manage to reverse the polarity and fight the Boss.

In real life, this is simply another meeting in a conference room - but you should find a way to celebrate with the team before moving on to the next phase. Whether that includes dramatic music is up to you.

The Next Phase

Once the phase gate is complete, the project team should be ready and equipped to move on and start working on the next phase.

In video games, after you defeat the boss monster, you typically get some treasure or a lot of experience points. These things usually enable you to move to the next level. In a project, the only reward you receive is more work - after all, the next phase is not going to complete itself.

More work is not quite as exciting as a treasure chest, but it's a pretty close second. Eventually, one phase gate will be the last gate. The project will be complete - and when you skilfully guide your team through the final phase gate and avoid doom, that's certainly reason to celebrate - dramatic music and all.

What about you, our readers, what secrets are hiding on your cheat sheets for better managing project phases? Let's discuss.


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