Conducting Successful Gate Meetings
Projects don’t arrive at their conclusion perfectly executed and delivering all the benefits promised in the Business Case, at the advertised cost. They must be measured along the way to ensure they are developing to plan. Our project management training (especially our PMP Exam preparation training) provides us with a variety of tools to measure project progress against schedule, budget, requirements, and quality goals. The most critical of these for demonstrating your project’s successful progress is the Gate Meeting. These meetings are variously called Phase Exit Reviews (by our PMP Exam preparation training), or Business Decision Points.
Whatever your organization calls your meetings, these are the points at which all the project stakeholders will determine whether your project is on track to meeting the organizations expectations for it. This article should provide you with some useful information, tips, and tricks to ensure that your meetings are successful.
Why Do I Need Gate Meetings?
Aside from the reasons stated above, there are 2 key reasons you should schedule gate meetings at key milestones throughout your project:
- You not only need to ensure your project is on track, you need to demonstrate your success to your project stakeholders and have them acknowledge you are staying the course. Gate meetings are your opportunity to accomplish this.
- Gate meetings also serve the purpose of validating the Business Case. As the project’s scope, budget, and schedule change throughout its life cycle, your Business Case will change. The Business Case may also be changed by circumstances outside the span of your control such as changes in the market place. The Gate Meeting is your opportunity to have the updated Business Case validated by your project’s executive sponsors. Your PMP Exam preparation training emphasizes the importance of an up to date Business Case and validation at these meetings.
When Do I Need to Hold a Gate Meeting?
Gate Meetings should be held at key milestones throughout the project. There is no hard and fast rule for how many Gate meetings a project should have, or when they should be held. We can say that each project should have at least two Gate Meetings: one between the Planning Phase and the Build Phase and one before the project Closeout. The first is critical because it has the ability to save the organization the bulk of project costs should it decide the Business Case doesn’t justify the expense, or the project doesn’t align with the organization’s strategic goals. The second is critical because this is the meeting where the customer will formally accept the products of the project. It should drive any formal sign offs and final payments that conclude the project.
Gate Meetings should be held at points in between when the project can benefit from them. For example, if you’re managing a software development project, you may want to hold a Gate Meeting between the requirements gathering and the start of software development and between the completion of software development and the start of QA testing. If you’re using RUP (Rational Unified Process), you’ll probably want to hold a Gate Meeting between each iteration. These are only a few examples of suitable points to hold your Gate Meetings. You should define a set of Gate Meetings customized to the needs of your project.
Here’s one final tip to help you define the correct set of Gate Meetings for your project: the points at which these meetings should be held should jump out at you when you look at your Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). If they don’t, it could be an indication that you haven’t broken the project work down correctly. Your PMP Exam preparation training will provide you with the process that will correctly break the work down. Don’t be afraid to hold too many Gate Meetings. Being selective when choosing invitees to these meetings will avoid Gate Meeting “burnout”. We’ll explore some tips and tricks for selecting Gate Meeting attendees later in this article.
What Gets Done at the Gate Meeting?
The key objective of your Gate Meeting is to reach a decision on whether to proceed to the next phase of the project, or cancel the project. Do not lose sight of this objective when you set the meetings agenda or conduct the meeting. Like every formal meeting you hold, you need to set an agenda for this one and your agenda should make this objective clear. It should also set the criteria for the decision and most importantly, identify the decision maker(s). We’ll expand on successful strategies for doing this when we discuss the meeting attendees.
The criteria that you should set for passing the Gate will be dependent on the specific Gate Meeting and your project. Generally speaking, there are 3 categories of criteria that will apply to most Gates:
- The Business Case is still valid. This means the expected benefits in your up to date Business Case still outweigh the costs and the project still aligns with the organization’s strategic objectives.
- The work of the finished phase is complete and meets quality standards established in your plan. This will generally be established by the completion of project deliverables.
- The resources required for the start of the next phase have been acquired and are in place. Resources include the people to do the work and everything they need to do it such as tools, work stations, facilities, hardware, software, etc.
The agenda of your meeting should serve the purpose of verifying that all these criteria have been met. Once the criteria have been satisfied, the decision should follow.
Gate Meeting Attendees
Remember that the key objective of your Gate Meeting is a decision to go forward with the next project phase (or not); your meeting attendees must include the decision makers to ensure this happens.
One of your key decision makers will be the project’s sponsor. This is the person who is accountable to the organization for the project budget; sometimes known as business sponsor, executive sponsor, or just plain sponsor. You’re going to need this person at the Gate Meeting which marks the advance of your project from planning to execution. The sponsor should also be present at the Closeout Gate Meeting; they need to be satisfied that the project has delivered all the benefits promised in the Business Case. They may also want to attend intervening Gate Meetings depending on the level of their interest and the deliverables being discussed at the meeting. You should always make the sponsor welcome at any Gate and make sure they understand what deliverables are being discussed but leave the final decision on whether to attend or not to them.
Other categories of stakeholders will include: partners (partner tools or partner organizations), sub-contractors, vendors, and project team members. You won’t be able to have the whole team present at the meeting but should have a spokesperson for each deliverable being discussed. You may want to speak for the deliverables yourself if you’re well enough acquainted with them but should at least have a spokesperson in the meeting with a technical command of the deliverable. Your PMP Exam preparation training material contains a fairly comprehensive list and description of project stakeholders.
You’ve carefully chosen the right project milestone for your meeting, chosen all the right attendees, and have a clear understanding of the meeting objective and how to achieve it. Here are some simple rules to follow in order to guarantee success.
Craft an agenda for the meeting that specifies the subject being addressed which includes the time allotted and the spokesperson. The agenda items should include each deliverable produced by the previous phase and each resource necessary for the next one. Don’t get too granular with the deliverables or resources; remember you don’t want to drag the meeting out, just satisfy the stakeholders all the criteria for success have been met. One trick to ensure the meeting doesn’t drag on is to bundle deliverables or resources into categories, for example instead of reviewing each module or feature in your software development project, lump them in categories such as Application Program Interface (API) software and “back end” software. Conclude the agenda with the decision. Identify the decision makers as spokespeople for the decision.
Be sure that the invitees are free at the meeting time. If you’re lucky enough to have access to Microsoft Outlook, you have the means to do this from your computer; otherwise you’ll have to do this person to person. You may want to speak with your sponsor face to face even if you have access to their calendars on-line to avoid any misunderstandings or last minute changes.
Choose a room large enough to hold all attendees. If you have a geographically dispersed team you also want to ensure that you’ve chosen a time that is suitable to all remote attendees. If this can’t be done because of time zone differences, make sure you spread the pain by considering the convenience of each remote attendee in turn. Be sure to book any audio/video equipment well in advance of the meeting such as conference bridges, Polycoms, projectors, etc. Be sure your bridge provides enough lines for all remote attendees.
Communicate the meeting invitation at least a week in advance of the meeting. Make sure that your invitation includes all the key information: purpose of the meeting, time, location, duration, and bridge numbers. You need to include the meeting agenda with your invitation. A day or two in advance of the meeting, send a meeting reminder including all the pertinent information plus the agenda.
A presentation for the meeting is optional but a simple PowerPoint presentation will tend to focus attendees on the business at hand. If you decide you should focus the meeting with a presentation, the presentation should itemize the deliverables and resources that comprise the criteria for passing the gate. A tip for making your presentation more effective at drawing a line under the discussion around a deliverable: make the presentation animated (this is a PowerPoint feature) and follow each deliverable/resource with a check mark.
You’ll make your meeting much more palatable if you can provide refreshments. These aren’t essential but will serve to make attendance more attractive to the invitees. If you do decide to provide refreshments, don’t let them disrupt the meeting. Make sure they’re either in place before the meeting starts or have them delivered during a short break in the meeting.
Running the Meeting
Running the Gate Meeting isn’t vastly different than running any other meeting effectively. If you’re unfamiliar with running meetings, you should take a course on the subject, or use a book or magazine article on the subject to upgrade your education. The knowledge we provide here is meant to augment your meeting generalship.
Rule #1: You are in charge of the meeting. This means a successful conclusion is your responsibility and your sponsor will expect you to keep the meeting and the attendees on track and focused. If the attendees take the meeting down a “rat hole”, it’s your responsibility to bring them back on track.
The first tip I’ll offer you on running an effective Gate Meeting is to appoint a timekeeper. Be sure the room understands the role of the time keeper. Their role is simply to inform the meeting of the time remaining for discussing a criteria or decision, or to announce that time is up. This person will keep the meeting on schedule and avoid having time run out without a decision being reached. This person may take some heat for interrupting an attendee giving a speech that runs over their limit, especially if the speaker is someone senior. It’s up to you to deflect the heat – remind the room that the time keeper is only doing the job you gave them. The more senior that person is, the more effective they will be in keeping the meeting on schedule. If you can solicit the timekeeping services of a respected project manager for your meeting you’ll have a head start keeping your meeting on schedule. One way of rewarding your timekeeper is to offer your timekeeping services in their meetings.
Take the lead on discussions on the ability of a deliverable or resource to meet gating criteria. You’re the subject matter expert on the criteria and are either speaking for the deliverable, or directing the owner to speak to it. You are ultimately responsible for the deliverables and resources of the project and it’s up to you to decide whether they meet gating criteria. You can have a team member who is directly responsible for the deliverable or resource describe it in terms of the gating criteria but it’s ultimately your responsibility to convince the room of its ability to meet gating criteria. Tip: don’t go into the meeting room without being thoroughly familiar with the status of each deliverable and resource itemized in your agenda.
Don’t expect discussion of your gating criteria to adhere to your schedule like a well rehearsed play. You can only expect your timekeeper to remind your stakeholders of the time limit on the topic of discussion; at best, they may be able to halt a stakeholder holding forth on topic that is tangent to one of your gating criteria and if you don’t have a strong personality in that role, you’ll have to step in yourself to preserve your schedule. If there is a lively debate on a deliverable, resource, or issue around either, help your timekeeper out by capturing an item in your project’s action register to follow up on the discussion. The follow up can happen at the conclusion of the meeting (leave a sufficient amount of time for these “parking lot” items in your agenda), or the item may require an action. If an action is required, you can either identify a team member in the room to accept responsibility for the item, or you can assume responsibility for it yourself. Never assign an action item to someone not present and ensure that items you assign to team members present in the room are accepted with a forecast completion date.
Accept that some gating criteria may not be met to every stakeholder’s satisfaction. Each stakeholder comes to your meeting with their own set of agenda and will only speak to their own agendas so a deliverable may satisfy every stakeholder but one and that one stakeholder may have a fairly minor complaint about the deliverable. If that’s the case, capture the complaint in the form of an action item in your action register and move on. The inability of the deliverable to satisfy your lone stakeholder won’t necessarily cause your gate to fail.
The objective of the meeting is to reach a decision on whether to proceed to the next project phase or not. In fact there is a third acceptable option: proceed to the next project phase contingent on some actions being taken or issues being closed. This decision is sometimes referred to as a “conditional pass”. The point is you have to define the process for reaching the decision, ensure the decision makers are provided with the information they need to reach the decision, and extract the decision from the decision makers.
Choosing the decision makers is critical to arriving at the decision. Make the stature of the decision makers commensurate with the significance of the Gate. At critical gates, your executive sponsor(s) will want to have ultimate say in the decision. At less critical points in your project you may want to delegate decision making responsibility, or make the decision yourself. In either case, make sure your sponsor is comfortable with the process and decision makers.
Review your decision maker selection and decision method with your project’s executive sponsor in advance of the meeting to ensure they’re comfortable, whether you identify them as the decision maker(s) or not. If you expect them to articulate the decision, make sure they know what you expect before the meeting. Your executive sponsor may need the project stakeholders to acknowledge that all the gating criteria have been met, but don’t mistake concurrence with veto power.
- Executive Sponsor(s): This is the simplest model, either the sponsor agrees that gating criteria have been met and the gate is passed, the criteria have not been met and the identified action items must be closed before the gate can be passed, or the business case no longer justifies continuing the project. Your project’s executive sponsor(s) will be the only stakeholders empowered to determine the project Business Case no longer justifies continuing the project.
- Project Manager: Another simple model. You take on the role of the executive sponsor in this case and your authority (with the exception of deciding on the Business Case) is identical to that described above.
- Project Stakeholders: These stakeholders may include partners, either internal or external, sub-contractors, vendors, the executive sponsor(s), clients, customers, and of course, yourself (as project manager). The sponsor and/or you will have the same level of authority as the rest of the stakeholders or decision makers in this case.
The decision making process where one person (either the executive sponsor or yourself) has authority over the decision is straightforward; just get the person to articulate the decision. When all or a subset of the project stakeholders must make the decision, you’ll need to employ one of these processes.
- Majority: A majority of the decision makers must agree on the decision. If there is an even number of decision makers, you’ll have to identify a tie breaker. This is probably the least useful and least used of the methods. The drawback to this method is the risk of a stakeholder disagreeing with a majority decision and either overtly or covertly sabotaging it.
- Consensus: This is a type of majority decision: the majority of decision makers agree on the decision and the rest can “live with” it. This means they don’t agree with the majority but can see the value to the project of their decision and are prepared to support it.
In my experience, no matter how diligent the project manager and team are in dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s on their project deliverables and resources, Gate Meetings seldom end in a clear cut decision to pass the gate. The pass is usually contingent on some issue being addressed or action being completed.
You must communicate the results of your Gate Meeting to the entire project team. If your project includes a “general” mailing list, use that as your “To:” list for the communication. You need to communicate the meeting’s decision. If the decision was a straightforward “proceed” or “stop”, communicate that and the reasons behind the decision. If the decision was to proceed contingent on some actions being completed or issues resolved, identify the actions or issues, their owners, and due dates.
You may capture actions or issues identified during the meeting in your project’s Action Register or Issue Log. If so you will need to identify these with the Gate so they can be uniquely identified. When the issues are closed or actions completed, communicate the closure/completion to the same “To:” list as the original communication.
Gate Meetings run the risk of having “dirty laundry” aired. The most critical gates or larger, more complex projects are more prone to this risk than ones where the project manager is thoroughly acquainted with all the deliverables and resources. Going into the Gate Meeting without a complete knowledge of the status of each deliverable and resource, or outstanding issue, is a guarantee of an ambush. Remember, the stakeholders are there to speak on behalf of their interests, not on behalf of yours or the projects. Don’t expose yourself to the risk of an ambush in front of your executive sponsor if you can avoid it.
A good way of avoiding an ambush is to conduct a pre-Gate Meeting a week or two before the actual Gate. The meeting should be conducted in exactly the same fashion as the actual Gate with the exception of the invitee list. Your executive sponsor, client, or customer, should not be present at these meetings. Your pre-Gate is similar to a rehearsal for a play. If there is any dirty laundry to air, such as a deliverable not completed to the satisfaction of a stakeholder, the pre-Gate Meeting ought to uncover it. Holding the pre-Gate a week or two before the actual Gate Meeting provides you with the time to address the objection before the actual Gate Meeting.
Don’t forget to “Cc:” your executive sponsor on the invite to the pre-Gate. In case you have any political enemies in the ranks of your stakeholders, the knowledge that your executive sponsor is aware of the meeting and its purpose should guarantee that the stakeholders won’t hold anything back during the pre-Gate that they later air in front of the sponsor at a Gate Meeting.