Can you AGILE your way through a stage-gate process?

(Hint:  The answer is “yes”)

They’re there…for your safety!

By Carl Pritchard

The battle for the hearts and minds of project managers is joined.  Organizations around the world are jumping on the Agile bandwagon, but each seems to wrestle with the notion of what Agility really is in their environment.

Early in my career, I remember going to a training on utility project management.  It turned out to be basic project management in a utility context.  There wasn’t a lot different going on.  It was still PM.  We see the same type of concern and wrestling going on now with Agile models of project management.  Can you adapt Agile in [insert your organization’s model here]? 

The answer is yes, but.  

Why Agile Works

If you’ve ever read the Agile manifesto, you know there are some core principles that render it as a best practice.  Among them?  A willingness to accept change.  A dedication of resources to an exclusive mission.  A fundamental acknowledgement that we still need clear end goals, and are willing to take different approaches to get there.  If the organization is willing to accept the core principles, the implementation may appear different, but the outcomes can be acceptable. 

Agile also works because it relies on team interaction and shared understanding of the goals and objectives.  If one part of the organization demands that they do not have to interact with the other players, Agile will fall flat. 

Reinvigorating the Stage-Gate Process

Stage-gate processes have been around almost as long as classic, waterfall project management.  The principle is simple.  You establish a laundry list of components, deliverables or ideals that must be achieved by the stage gate deadline.  You host a review.  Were those components achieved?  If yes, it’s likely that you’ll be approved to move on to the next stage-gate.  If not?  It might be time to shut the project down. 

Infusing Agile into the Stage Gate

The challenge comes in that stage gates are normally months apart (sometimes even years), while Agile sprints are two or four weeks apart.  All of the missions associated with a stage gate can’t be achieved in a single sprint.  And while achieving a stage gate provides a morale (not moral, morale) victory, it’s questionable whether or not something of value has been produced.  That value is a core element of Agile, as well. 

It’s at this moment that someone might contend that old stage-gated processes are outdated.  As Agile demands a prioritization of outcomes over processes, it might be time to push the gates to the trash heap. 

Infusing Stage Gates into Agile!

Actually, it’s the stage gates that can add value into Agile.  One of the key challenges with Agile is defining “done.”  Because of the inherent flexibility and agility of Agile process, there’s a temptation to continue to leverage change throughout the life cycle, generating projects that will never die.  Agile organizations often find themselves in the one-sprint-away mentality that a breakthrough is imminent and that they should celebrate the value (no matter how small) of the last sprint. 

Stage gate reviews provide an absolute stopping point.  They stop long enough to ensure that everyone understands what value has been added.  They stop long enough to say we have met the goals and objectives necessary to take intelligent steps forward.  They stop long enough to get management on board with the idea that work has been accomplished, but they (management) need to invest themselves in the decisions to keep going. 

In pharma?  They provide an opportunity to ensure the regulators have the insights they require.  In manufacturing?  They ensure the processes are documented and repeatable.  In software, they afford a chance to stop the seemingly never-ending flow of change, albeit temporarily.  (Ah, the joy of a one-month code freeze). 

Is there a place for Agile in stage-gate management?  I believe the question is the other way around.  Is there a place for stage-gate management in Agile?  And in both instances, I believe the answer is “yes.”  As long as management understands the value of arriving at (and passing) a gate, and as long as the quest is to achieve deliverables of value, the two principles actually belong together. 

Such a philosophy will fail miserably once one set of principles demands fealty of the other.  The challenge is to recognize both sides of the equation as value-add, and to educate all of the players on their responsibilities in both environments.

Carl Pritchard, PMP®, PMI-RMP® is a project management and risk management trainer, lecturer, author and writer based in Frederick, MD, USA.  He welcomes your comments and insights at