Phase-gate process in project management: What it is and how it works

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It may sound like something out of a science fiction film, but the phase-gate process is a project management methodology that can offer a lot of benefits. It helps project teams break large projects down into checkpoints and milestones to ensure quality and viability before moving on to the next development phase.

Of course, there’s no shortage of project management methodologies for client services businesses to choose from. So, to help you decide if the phase-gate process is the right choice for your next project, let’s take a look at what it entails, its benefits and drawbacks, and tips for developing an effective phase-gate process.

What is the phase-gate process in project management?

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The phase-gate process provides a structured approach to project management that involves dividing projects into distinct stages, with each stage marked by a gate review

Gate reviews in the phase-gate process serve as checkpoints where stakeholders can assess the project’s progress, feasibility, and alignment with business goals before moving on to the next phase. Some of the people commonly involved in this process include project managers, team leaders, subject matter experts, and financial analysts.

The phase-gate process also requires a designated “gatekeeper.” This is an individual (or group of individuals) responsible for assessing the project and ultimately deciding whether or not it’s ready for the next phase.

Stages of the phase-gate process

Depending on the type of project you’re working on, you can use the phase-gate process to break projects down into any number of project phases. However, there are a few common stages that tend to define this type of product development process.

The process will follow each one of these stages, or “gates.” These gates are crucial decision points where key stakeholders assess if the project is meeting its objectives, staying within budget, and adhering to timelines.

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Phase 1: Ideation and scoping

The phase-gate process (also known as the stage-gate process) typically begins with an initial feasibility study or preliminary assessment to evaluate the idea's viability. This is also the stage where you will define the project’s scope, its objectives, and its big-picture requirements.

Stakeholder input plays a key role in this phase and helps iron out the project’s requirements. Initial risk identification and high-level resource planning are also an important part of the ideation and scoping phase.

Phase 2: Business case

This phase of the phase-gate process entails developing a detailed project plan complete with timelines, budgets, and resource allocations.

A more in-depth risk assessment also takes place at this stage, followed by mitigation planning for any risks that are identified. This helps teams preemptively address potential risks before they snowball into major problems.

Phase 3: Development and implementation

Once you have a thorough action plan in place, you can move on to the development and implementation phase. This is the stage where the rubber meets the road and team members work on bringing the project to life.

This stage is typically characterized by iterative development, particularly agile or iterative project management methodologies. This breaks the development process itself down into — you guessed it — more stages! And that helps further ensure quality and adherence to project goals every step of the way.

Phase 4: Testing and validation

As the project nears completion, the testing and validation phase takes center stage. Quality assurance becomes the focal point here, as teams employ rigorous testing procedures to ensure high-quality deliverables that meet customer needs.

No matter which methodology you follow, thorough testing is key to project success. While the whole point of the phase-gate process is to test and evaluate the project at each phase before moving on to the next stage, testing and validation is important enough that it warrants its own stage as well.

Phase 5: Launch/go-to-market

The phase-gate process concludes with the product launch or go-to-market phase. Here, teams conduct final testing and validation before unleashing the product to the masses.

This is also the phase where project teams and senior management will develop strategies for product launch, distribution, and post-launch support as well as the phase where you complete the project closure process.

Advantages of the phase-gate process

Compared to traditional project management methodologies like the waterfall methodology, the phase-gate process can offer several unique advantages:

Less risk

Like Arnold Glasow once said, “One of the true tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes an emergency.” Thankfully, the right project management methodology can help, too.

By encouraging early and continuous evaluation, introducing plenty of decision points into the project lifecycle, and emphasizing thorough testing, the phase-gate process helps agencies mitigate potential problems before they escalate. This both reduces the risk of project failure and helps minimize wasted resources.

Better efficiency

Breaking projects down into pre-defined phases promotes clarity and focus. It helps prevent team members from getting lost in the weeds and ensures that everyone stays aligned and on target.

The end result is that team members are usually able to be much more productive and efficient. Bringing clarity and focus to your project management process is also key to preventing scope creep.

Smarter resource allocation

The sunken cost fallacy is a concept that every business leader is familiar with. However, identifying when a ship has sunk and is no longer worth saving is often more challenging than you think.

The phase-gate process helps agencies identify underperforming projects early on in this lifecycle. This allows decision-makers to shift resources away from these sunken projects and apply them to more promising ones instead.

More transparency

The clear decision points and well-defined criteria that the phase-gate process provides can lead to a big boost in project transparency. Once again, it creates clarity and focus where team members and project stakeholders have a solid understanding of what’s happening at every phase.

This has a lot of benefits, from helping spot potential issues to keeping everyone aligned toward common goals. It also helps promote better communication, since communicating is always way easier when everyone understands what’s going on.

Challenges in the phase-gate process

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The phase-gate process has many advantages, but it’s not all sunshine and roses. To really maximize the benefits of this methodology, there are a few challenges you may have to overcome:

Lack of flexibility

Structure and flexibility don’t always go hand in hand. While using the phase-gate process to structure projects into pre-defined phases is beneficial, it can also hinder adaptability. This is especially true in fast-paced agency environments where quick changes are a must.

Structure can also stifle innovation; when team members blindly follow pre-defined instructions instead of figuring things out as they go, it limits the exploration of unconventional yet potentially promising ideas.

Integration with other processes

The phase-gate process needs to be well-integrated with other project management methodologies and tools to ensure smooth workflow and avoid conflicting practices.

Adopting the phase-gate process shouldn’t require a complete overhaul of your existing project management tools and processes, but it will require some adjusting. 

For example, you may need to choose a project management tool that provides functionalities that are key to the phase-gate process, like milestone tracking. Or, you may have to adjust your usual project management workflows to accommodate the gate reviews.

Unclear or subjective criteria

Imagine a class where every student gets a completely different test for the final exam. What you’d end up with is confusion, inconsistent results, and a lot of angry students.

If the criteria you use at each gate are unclear, subjective, or not well-defined, it can lead to inconsistent decision-making and confusion among team members. It also creates the opportunity for bias and manipulation of the process.

Tips for developing your phase-gate process

So, how do you develop a phase-gate process that maximizes the methodology’s benefits while minimizing its drawbacks? 

  • Involve stakeholders: Project stakeholders should be heavily involved in developing the phase-gate process to provide diverse perspectives and encourage buy-in.

  • Tailor your gates to project needs: Customizing the criteria of each gate based on your specific project requirements ensures that they will serve as meaningful checkpoints for decision-making.

  • Focus on the customer or client: Prioritize customer needs heavily when developing gate criteria to ensure that each phase in the process ultimately delivers value to the end user.

  • Regularly review and reassess: Promote continuous improvement by regularly reviewing your phase-gate process and looking for opportunities to make it more effective.

Build out your phase-gate processes with

Our final, most impactful tip for developing a phase-gate process is to use the right tools. With, client services teams can create projects with built-in gate reviews, assign tasks to team members and track their progress at every project phase, and leverage plenty of advanced analytics features to evaluate projects throughout their lifecycle. also gives project managers and team members the tools they need to communicate and collaborate efficiently — both internally and with external stakeholders. It's an all-in-one platform to manage every aspect of your client work, and it is well-aligned with the principles of phase-gate project management. 

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