Tollgate reviews are a conceptually simple, yet extremely powerful tool for creating successful projects. Like their real world analogue, where a driver must pay a fee before he or she can continue driving on a particular road, a tollgate review requires that a project meet a pre-defined set of criteria, a fee of sorts, before it can continue to its next logical phase.
Many project managers would scoff at this idea, explaining that theyve already carefully defined and delineated the various phases of their project, and that a review is a key component of each one. While this is likely the case in any phased methodology, these reviews tend to be cursory, and in complex projects, the project tends to slide into the next phase by sheer momentum rather than due to a careful assessment of whether it has met its objectives. While some sort of review process is not new, there are two key elements to tollgate reviews that provide a powerful driver for success.
Tollgates are pre-defined
With complex projects, its difficult to know all the variables that could affect the project when you begin planning. However, its usually possible to identify what success looks like at each phase of the project and what questions you should have answered when a particular phase completes. If you look at these questions through the context of the business problem youre solving, youll end up with benchmarks that look like Deliver a prototype of the Accounts Payable process thats approved by Mrs. Smith in AP and Mr. Jones in Audit rather than a deliverables-based metric like Complete 95% of the functional design documents.
When these objectives are prepared well in advance of the completion of a phase, youre more likely to be honest than when letting missed dates, changed budgets, and leadership pressure affect your objective setting. Evaluating the state of your project using metrics that were set before you began is the closest thing you can get to an independent expert with deep knowledge of your business performing the evaluation. If your review is completed without this context, youre likely to settle for unanswered questions or deliverables-based metrics that shortchange your project and let you slip into the next phase, gradually creating a massive gap that will explode around go-live time.
Tollgates provide the power to pause
When tollgate metrics are created in advance, and circulated and agreed to by project stakeholders, they give project leadership the ability to legitimately pause a project before it proceeds into the next phase. Without pre-defined metrics, you lose the context of where your project should be, and many will be tempted to charge ahead based on where you are. The tollgate metrics again act as an independent voice and, if your project is not meeting these metrics, you can make an objective call that theres more work required before moving to the next phase, rather than making an emotional or seemingly personal appeal thats likely to be met with dissent.
While no one likes to stop the forward march of a large or complex project once it starts, most phased implementation methodologies will quickly build a black hole as you push incomplete work from earlier phases out. In large systems projects in particular, Ive seen project teams that keep piling on the unanswered questions and incomplete business objectives, plowing ahead in the name of progress. Only when the system is tested or goes live and is exposed to users do these come crashing down, often causing a complete reworking of the project.
The tollgate review process also forces some honesty upon the project team. No one can hide from missed objectives as you stare at a list created by the same team earlier in the project. Essentially the voice to stop comes from the team itself.
Like most good advice, tollgates are conceptually simple and fairly easy to implement. In one or two meetings you can define and document the business objectives for the next phase of your project and gain agreement from critical stakeholders. Similarly, its relatively easy to revisit those requirements at the end of the phase and evaluate the current state of the project in the context of those objectives. Where fortitude and discipline are required is in bringing honesty to that evaluation and empowering project management and stakeholders to pause the project when appropriate, even in the face of high burn rates or political pressure to move forward.
Patrick Gray is the founder and president of Prevoyance Group, and author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology. Prevoyance Group provides strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com.