In our question and answer session with Stephen Bridge, we discuss the role of the Gatekeeper, how to make gate decisions and how scorecards can facilitate this process.
Good morning. My name is John Wheals, a Senior Consultant with the GenSight group. I am talking to Stephen Bridge, Senior Consultant with GenSight who previously worked for a multinational organisation as the owner and administrator of their Stage Gate process. Stephen has a wealth of knowledge and experience.
Thank you for your time today Stephen. To start what are your thoughts on who should be a Gatekeeper and what is their role in the Stage Gate process?
The Gatekeepers should be the Senior Managers of the business, who are in a position to evaluate whether each project is aligned with the objectives of the business, and whether it can deliver an appropriate return on investment. They need to be the Managers who control the resources that the project requires, as it is those resources they will be committing if they approve the project. Fundamentally, they are going to be judging whether each project is right for the business, whether it can deliver against its promise, and then making available the manpower, money and equipment etc to make a success of it. For example, in a Manufacturing business, the Gatekeepers might represent Marketing, R&D, Supply Chain, Finance and Sales.
What is the key to making the right gate decisions?
Information is key. With Stage Gate, you are often making million-pound decisions, so you need to get them right, and to do that you need to have access to the best, most up-to-date information. And that information must flow up from detail, from potentially a whole host of different people. Some of it is numeric and some is judgemental. There is no computer software to tell you what the right or wrong answer is (although some projects might be a no-brainer). It all comes down to ensuring the best flow of information, being presented in the best possible way. This is what you are looking to do within a Stage Gate type process. That yes or no answer, or Go / Kill is made at the Gate. In short, it’s about information flow to executives to help them make informed decisions.
In terms of informed decisions, is there anything else needed by the Gatekeepers to help them make those decisions?
Consistency in the decision making is very important. From a project teams perspective, they need to understand what information needs to be presented to the Gatekeeper, and the Gatekeeper must understand the multitude of criteria and checklists they should to go through when making a gate decision. Often a scorecard will be used. What is helpful about having a score card, which is essentially like a checklist, is that it brings the Gatekeeping team together and ensures that all Gatekeepers are judging the project against the same criteria, with consistent criteria from project to project. It also forces them to understand how each one of them views the project.
Earlier you mentioned Go / Kill decisions. Are these decisions made in isolation, or are they considered in the context of the whole portfolio?
At each Gate, there are three decisions that the Gatekeeper can make that relate to the project in a stand-alone context, which are Go, No Go and Recycle (Recycle is when further information needs to be gathered). Those decisions are made in isolation and by judging the project on its own merits. There is also a Hold decision, and that is a portfolio level decision.
With any project, whether you progress at that point in time is based on the whole portfolio. It may be a perfectly good project, but the resources it requires are currently assigned to a different project, and you need that project to finish, or to at least release those resources before the project you just approved can be moved forward – so in other words, you are going to put that project on hold. This does mean that you should be putting more projects through gates than you can actually implement. As a project progresses, you may find it looks less attractive, and that there are projects on Hold in your portfolio that now look to be better bets than the one you are actively working on.
When these resources become available you may wish to restart the project. But you also have the situation where markets change, and again the project you are working on may go down in your estimation whilst others go up. You may then look at the projects you have on hold and bring one of those forward in their place.
Therefore, the Go / No Go at the Gate is dependent on its merit at the time. The decision of whether it’s active in your portfolio, or on Hold, is a portfolio decision. If you suddenly decide you need more revenue, or a project goes dud on you, there is another you already have in the stack at the ready to bring forward to fill its place, or to provide that extra revenue. Therefore, you’re not having to start from scratch finding new ideas.
In your experience, what are some of the reasons for making a Kill decision opposed to putting a project on Hold?
ROI, not enough resources to carry out the project i.e. not enough people or cash, perhaps the project isn’t fully aligned with business strategy , it may be intellectual property (e.g. You can’t get a patent, or someone else’s patent stops you from progressing), perhaps the product or concept doesn’t research very well, insufficient market / the market is too small, insufficient margins… Just to name a few. Kill criteria will change dependent on the Gate. It supports keeping the process as a funnel, not a tunnel. You should have more projects than you need at early stages of the Stage Gate process than you do in the later stages.
In my experience, one of the mechanisms to ensure that the Gatekeeper has got the information to make a decision comes through the Gate presentation. In your experience, what does a good Gate presentation look like?
It allows the gatekeeping team to understand the project and to evaluate it properly against the Gate criteria and reach a consensus with their decision. In order to reach the ‘right’ decision, a Gate presentation mustn’t omit the bad points. If the decision is Kill, then the project team must understand that is not a failure on their part. The failure is not presenting the information that they have found correctly with the right recommendation, be it Go or No Go. If they have done a whole load of work and it’s a bad project, they should say that it’s a bad project. Putting a project through a Gate when it should have been rejected is a waste of company resources. I understand that psychologically for some people, to say that you should kill a project you are working on, particularly for more junior people who are just starting out in a company, and the first thing they do is suggest we kill a project that they have just been given, can be problematic. But if the project should be killed, it should be killed. The Gate presentation should be structured in such a way that it enforces the team to cover the whole of the project, not just the good points but the bad points too, and that each of the criteria that each of the gate keepers use, hopefully in a score card is properly represented, so that they can properly evaluate the project.
What preparation should the Gatekeepers do for each meeting?
I would expect them to be briefed by any of their staff on the project team about the project, and any issues they envisage. Also, it is important that the Gatekeepers have the gate presentation and supporting documents sufficiently far enough before the Gate meeting so that there is time for them to ask questions and for those questions to be answered. You want to avoid a situation where you get to the Gate meeting and the Gatekeeper says, “Please could you give me this information”, and somebody answers, “well I could, but I need to go away and research it and get back to you.” In which case, they must wait until the next Gate meeting which could be a month away. Gatekeepers need to be asking those kinds of questions before you get to the meetings.
And in terms of the questions that need to be asked, does every Gate require the same rigour?
What you are trying to do is have a process that provides fit for purpose, quality control at each of the defined Gates and to judge and manage the risks associated with any innovation project. This comes down to being able to segment down into different types of projects with different risk profiles and importance profiles. And with Stage Gate Express and Super Express you can see what needs to be discussed in meetings, what doesn’t need to be debated and what can be done electronically. Consider the level of investment it requires and its importance to your business. It’s for the Gatekeeping teams to judge what they need and have to do in, and therefore the questions they are going to be asking in order to not make missteps. The most important part of Stage Gate is managing risk – the risk being failure in the marketplace, which apart from anything else is a reputational risk, it’s the reputation of your business that you are putting at stake. Again, the Gatekeepers need to feel that they have the appropriate level of information to take the right decision.
In your experience, what are the benefits of a Gatekeeper undertaking a scoring activity?
As I said before, it provides for a consistent basis for their decision making. This allows people to discuss how they view the project opposite the scorecard and understand why two Gatekeepers may feel quite differently about an element of the project and try to understand why that is – this provides a lot of value in the Gatekeeping debate. Also, the benefits of scoring and recording is that it allows you to compare projects. It structures the discussion and means that it forces you to look at all areas of a project rather than going light on a particular area or overlooking it completely. I’ve seen examples where we have trained individuals on how to use the scorecard properly, they have used it to score a project and actually said to me afterwards, “That was really interesting. Had we used a scorecard for the previous project we reviewed, I don’t think it would have got through the gate.” They realised that having a structured discussion meant that nothing was missed. Using the scorecard made them realise that parts of the previous case were weak, and parts that they needed to know in order to evaluate the project properly were missed out entirely. The level of rigour that the scorecard provided ensured that they properly understood all aspects of the project. It’s so easy for project teams to go through the good points and leave out the bad.
Additionally, if a project fails in a marketplace, you can go back and look at the scoring. The scorecard can inform a post-project review and help evaluate and pinpoint where things went wrong. The failure may not be the project team, but the gatekeepers, who may not have been thorough enough with their process. The Gatekeeper can then look back at the project and examine why it got through. Gatekeepers are as much part of the review as the project team, and they may realise that there was something they should have picked up on earlier on. This recording is important and can ensure the same mistakes don’t happen again.
Should all Gatekeeper score all elements of the scorecard?
Their level in the executive team is such that they should have a broad business understanding over and above their personal specialisms. To that extent, they should be able to question their specialist colleagues on their specialist areas of the business in respect to the project. They have the right to query a particular opinion and the evidence that is presented to them. Clearly, there needs to be a level of trust in being able to enquire like that, but also requires a level of trust to accept the answer that is given to them. The key is to reach a consensus view on the project. What you don’t want is for someone to step out of the meeting and say, “Well I didn’t actually agree to that, so my department isn’t going to cooperate in delivering this project.” You want everyone to be able to ask questions and arrive at the same decision. Often in meetings, you may have a few individuals who haven’t said anything in the whole conversation about the project, so they haven’t really expressed their opinion. Whereas if everyone is scoring each of the elements, by writing down a score, they are expressing an opinion. If their opinion is different to other peoples, then people will want to have that verbalised – why did they arrive at that score? By discussing that, the team then comes to a common understanding of the merits of the project and can then arrive at the consensus required.
Often you do notice that after a while, and with an experienced group of Gatekeepers, the Gatekeepers will start scoring in the same way as they get used to the scorecard criteria and used to each other, and improve their knowledge of areas in the business they are less familiar with. That leads to having far less variance in scoring.
Therefore, you are suggesting that the scorecard can facilitate the role of the Gatekeeper and improve both understanding and communication?
If you have a gate keeper scorecard, it sets out criteria. If you are setting out criteria for decisions, that is communicable to project teams and therefore dictates what should be in their business case, what should be presented, what information they are going to have to gather to enable the Gatekeeper to make decisions. This will often lead to having a Gate template presentation which is aimed at providing the information implied in the scorecard. If you are not using scorecards, and you ask the project teams how Gatekeepers make their decisions, you will find a lot of them will have no idea how decisions are made and on what basis. So how do they know what information to present? However, if you show them a scorecard, you are showing them how the Gatekeepers make their decisions, and suddenly it all becomes clear to them.
Does this help keep the team motivated?
The scorecard is a very easy way of having project teams understand what the criteria is and understand how the gate keepers make their decisions. If you have a project rejected and you don’t understand why, because you don’t know the criteria that they are using, it can be very de-motivating. What Gatekeepers should be saying is that the team have done terrific work on this project, and given us all the information we needed, but unfortunately it means that this project is not worth investing in if you are going to Kill it. You must still congratulate the project team for their efforts. It is important when you kill projects that you keep the team motivated. It is important they understand why the project is not going forward.
Thank you for that Stephen. Are there any other observations and learnings that you would like to add?
There are a couple of points I would like to make. Firstly, if a physical Gate meeting is being held, then team members of the project team should be included for the presentation discussion of their project so that they can engage with the Gatekeepers. This is very motivating for the project team.
My other observation is that in some organisations, a senior Gatekeeper (e.g. the Chief Executive) may express their own view first, and this frames the debate and sets the tone for the Gate discussion. This can be problematic culturally – if the Chief Executive or general manager expresses their opinion before anybody else, then others may feel obliged to go along with the same opinion, no matter what they think. Often, if the CEO approves, everyone else feels like they must also approve. This is something organisations and CEOs should be mindful of.
Thank you for your time and insight today Stephen, it’s been very useful.
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