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Sunday, June 2, 2013

Gate Review Processes for Optimizing Business, Managing Information Technology (IT) Portfolios, and Gamification

Introduction
The Stage-Gate® processes that Dr. Robert G. Cooper initially outlined has been in widespread use for product innovation and portfolio management for years. The fundamental process of using Gate Reviews, however, has multiple applications in business operations. Gate Reviews can be used in Marketing, Sales, Technical Support, Operations, Finance, Engineering, and IT -- anywhere key decisions are made requiring funds or resources. This article does the following: (1) presents the Gate Review Process as a holistic decision-making construct; (2) identifies commonalities across a selection of IT applications; and (3) proposes the Gate Review Process as an excellent tool to formalize Business Process Optimization (PBO), IT portfolio management, and gamification. In addition, the basic building blocks of a Gate Review Process are presented for tailoring.

Definition
A Gate Review Process is a quantitative decision-making technique that helps organizations do three things:
  1. Increase task or project success
  2. Reduce risk
  3. Improve decision-making efficiency.
A series of evaluative reviews underlie this process, where a task or project is assessed against a predetermined set of criteria that is aligned with the organization's strategic objectives. Figure 1 outlines a generic Gate Review Process.

Figure 1: Generic Gate Review Process

Applications of Gate Reviews
Here are a few application areas where Gate Reviews are implemented:

Example 1: Use in Marketing Website Development
Gate Reviews solidify key components of a website before significant effort is expended in the follow-up stages. Some typical gates may be defined around these activities:
  • Gate 1: Define and approve the strategy, audience, competition, messaging, themes, Search Engine Marketing (SEM) keywords, goals, and use cases.
  • Gate 2: Define and approve the project plan, user experience, information architecture, wireframe, tools, and content management approach.
  • Gate 3: Develop and approve the graphic design, content, site shell, and back-end code.
  • Gate 4: Assemble, test, and approve the final site.
Example 2: Use in Business Development
Gate Reviews are used by every successful defense contractor to plan major proposal activities. Consider this typical sequence:
  • Gate 1: A lead sponsor identifies an opportunity and presents it for an initial decision to pursue.
  • Gate 2: The lead sponsor then assembles a team, documents a plan to win the business, and presents it for a decision to write a proposal.
  • Gate 3: The proposal manager develops a proposal outline, scope document, proposal summary, and/or storyboards for a final bid or no-bid decision.
  • Gate 4: The proposal team determines a complete solution, and writes and refines a proposal through a series of "color hat reviews," then delivers it to the prospective customer.
Example 3: Use in Information Technology Service Management (ITSM)
In ITSM incident management, escalation involves a sequence of Gate Reviews to help prioritize work, increase capacity, and reduce cost. A typical sequence:
  • Gate 1: A user submits a Help Desk incident and pushes it into a queue, based on the pre-defined categories that the process owner defined.
  • Gate 2: A first-level responder (usually a generalist) verifies and validates the request, sizes/classifies it, provides initial support, and adds new information to the meet the escalation criteria before passing it to the next level.
  • Gate 3: The second-level responder (usually a specialist) investigates the incident, diagnoses the problem, documents findings to meet the escalation criteria, and passes it to the third level.
  • Gate 4: The third-level responder (usually a developer) provides additional diagnosis, creates a solution, and proposes a resolution to the Change Advisory Board (CAB) to meet the development and release criteria outlined by the CAB.
  • Gate 5: The CAB reviews and approves the fix and proposed release date.
Incidents can be resolved or sent back to the previous gate at any point during this process when they do not satisfy the basic requirements for escalation.

Example 4: Use in Software Development or IT Planning
In general, software development and IT planning follow a sequence of phases or activities, depending on the lifecycle chosen and the product manager's release plan. The Rational Unified Process (RUP), for example, defines the following four phases: (1) Inception, (2) Elaboration, (3) Construction, and (4) Transition. Each phase ends with a milestone that is the equivalent of a Gate Review. Consider these definitions:
  • Gate 1: Lifecycle Objective Milestone
  • Gate 2: Lifecycle Architecture Milestone
  • Gate 3: Initial Operational Capability Milestone
  • Gate 4: Product Release Milestone
A RUP-centric Gate Review Process would quantify each evaluation criterion defined in the milestone using a series of scale factors. This enables the gatekeepers to focus objectively on the quality and maturity of the effort at each stage.

Perspectives on Gate Reviews
A sponsor with a task, project, or idea initiates the process. The sponsor's initiative must satisfy a minimum set of requirements for the Gate 1, which generally authorizes additional effort, funding, or resources to complete the next gate. Subsequent Gate Reviews become increasingly more sophisticated and challenging. To the sponsor, the process may seem like a sequence of hurdles.
For the business executive or portfolio manager, the process is more like a pyramid tournament, where each competition becomes progressively harder. The benefits of pyramid tournaments are clear: (1) every athlete has a chance to win; (2) the criteria for success are defined clearly; and (3) only the strongest athletes move on to the later stages in the tournament. Likewise, Gate Reviews offer sponsors the opportunity to improve their tasks and ideas for success.

Figure 2: Gate Review Process From the Portfolio Manager's Perspective
The funnel motif can also be used to analyze and present progress in a portfolio of initiatives. When capacity is finite or attrition is present, only a certain number of initiatives can move to the "go" phase. Therefore, any "lumpiness" in a stage would indicate incorrect stage design or presage a bottleneck problem at the next stage. The funnel is a common tool in managing a sales pipeline.

Gamafication and IT Portfolio Management
Gamification is the application of game theory in a non-gaming context; in this case the context is managing a portfolio of initiatives in a Gate Review workflow. Gate Reviews can be employed to create a game-like environment for sponsors who earn "points" for generating ideas and progressing through the Gate Review Process. Research shows that participants in a gamified process find it more rewarding, which in turn increases competition and performance. (Reeves, Read) The way gamification is implemented varies by organization and process.

Benefits of Gate Review Decision Processes
Here are some of the reasons why designing a good Gate Review Process can be so successful:
  1. Fostering Innovation
    A Gate Review Process imposes few restrictions during discovery and ideation, which encourages creative thinking and innovation for a wide audience. An initiative must only meet the criteria for the next Gate Review, thus ensuring that sponsors are not overwhelmed or discouraged before their initiative has adequately matured.
  2. Teamwork by Design
    Gate Reviews enforce team collaboration at every step, by requiring contributions from multiple participants at each stage. Later stages, for example, may require multiple account manager or customer endorsements and a written plan from an operations or development team.
  3. Accelerating Time to Market
    A Gate Review Process emphasizes rapid iteration and speed to decision, which accelerates ideas to market. This is done through frequent and iterative interaction among the sponsor(s), stakeholders, and the organization's leadership.
  4. Self-Improving Processes
    A Gate Review Process provides a quantitative framework to improve the process for evaluation and decision making. A Gate Review Process also facilitates sharing knowledge across efforts and sharing lessons-learned. Lastly, a Gate Review Process offers opportunities for gamification.
  5. Managing risk
    A Gate Review Process helps manage risk by distributing budget authority across multiple teams and multiple stages in the lifecycle of a task or initiative. In addition, each Gate Review criterion typically specifies common risk categories that must be addressed. This distribution of budget authority is also empowering and efficient, while it simultaneously enables an organization to be more agile in changing priorities or direction, when needed.
Fundamental Components of a Gate Review Process
There are SIX fundamental elements needed to construct a successful Gate Review Process, divided into three "p" categories: people, processes, and product. Consider the following:
  1. People: The Sponsor(s)
    A sponsor is the individual or individuals who are responsible for promoting the task or project and shepherding it through the Gate Review Process.
  2. People: The Stakeholder(s)
    The stakeholders include all individuals whom the initiative impacts.
  3. People: The Gatekeeper(s)
    The gatekeepers are one or more individuals who have authority to approve resources needed to complete the Gate Review. The gatekeepers can be different for each Gate Review, which reduces the Gate Review burden on leadership; or in a Help Desk scenario, it reduces the cost of operations and improves customer satisfaction.
  4. People: The Process Manager
    The process manager is the individual who owns, promotes, maintains, and improves the Gate Review Process.
  5. Process: The Gate Reviews
    The Gate Reviews define a sequence of stages with entrance criteria needed to assess and evaluate projects or tasks. Each Gate Review type can authorize a pre-determined budget amount for the sponsor's project, and that amount generally increases in later-stage reviews.
  6. Product: The Idea, Concept, Project, or Task to be Evaluated
    The item under review can be anything from a single task, incident, or budget line item, to a complex budget plan, project, or proposal.
Any business process can be improved by looking at these six components as part of a decision-making construct worthy of formalization and optimization.

Conclusion
Dr. Robert G. Cooper's original Stage-Gate® is a proven successful method for fostering innovation within organizations. This same concept can be applied generically across multiple organizational processes to achieve the same benefits, which include the following:
  • Improved efficiency
  • Greater innovation
  • Enhanced teamwork
  • Risk management
  • Constant improvement.
This article introduced the general concept of the Gate Review Process, with several application examples in IT. In addition, this article exemplifies how the Gate Review Process has unique applications in IT Portfolio Management, and for gamification.

For Further Reading:
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Reeves, B., & Read, J. L. (2009). Total engagement: using games and virtual worlds to change the way people work and businesses compete. Boston, MA.: Harvard Business Press.
Cooper, R. G. (n.d.). The Official Website of the Stage-Gate Product Innovation Process | Stage-Gate International. Retrieved May 20, 2013, from http://www.stage-gate.com
Rational Unified Process. Best Practices for Software Development Teams. Nov 2011. Retrieved May 20, 2013, from www.ibm.com/developerworks/rational/library/content/03July/1000/1251/1251_bestpractices_TP026B.pdf
Gamification. (n.d.). Retrieved May 20, 2013 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamification