A hybrid consisting of Agile and Stage Gate

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Abstract

Project, Program and Portfolio Management is the application of processes, tools and methodologies to successfully plan and execute projects. Agile project management is an iterative approach that focuses on breaking down large projects into smaller and more manageable tasks in small cycles/sprints, which are completed in short iterations throughout the project life cycle. [1] The Stage-Gate model is an approach to guide a project from idea to launch by efficient project management. The large project, or even program, is separated into stages, and the end of each stage requires a review to pass a gate and begin on the next stage. These gates review whether or not the project is ready to continue and move on to the next stage, which also includes portfolio management - is the project balanced and aligned with the portfolio.

Project Management is not only about achieving a purpose. It is also about achieving a purpose within a limited time, cost, and meeting the preset quality criteria - this is known as the triple constraints illustrated by the Iron Triangle [2] [p. 71]. A combination of an Agile approach and the Stage-Gate model is a systematic way of controlling these three constraints as the Project Manager and make the project effective and efficient. The large project is divided into stages by the Stage-Gate model and running Agile cycles in each stage. Time, cost and quality is reviewed at each gate before moving on to the next stage. This combination is even possible for a program with several parallel projects - projects with their own individual stages but sharing gates across the program to align and keep the whole project, parts, and portfolio on track within the company's objectives and without exceeding the time-, cost-, and quality limits.

Instead of looking at projects as a life cycle, the book Doing Projects: A Nordic Flavor to Managing Project [2], claims that projects can be analyzed through four perspectives: Purpose, People, Complexity and Uncertainty. With that in mind, a combination of an Agile approach and the Stage Gate model, we are placed mostly in two of the perspectives - Purpose and complexity. Purpose because the combination is about riding the life cycle of a project, both in the big picture from ideation to closure but also within the stages by the Agile approach. Complexity because it is about scheduling - When to do what?. If you take a deep dive into the Agile approach, you need to know your team well as the Project Manager [3] [p. 51-52], in order to set aside the necessary team-roles. With that in mind, the combination does also belong to the People perspective.

Explanation of the two components of the hybrid and their cooperation

The Agile approach and the Stage Gate model for project management are described in the following. In the end of the section the hybrid consisting of the two approaches will be introduced as a strong combination for you as a Project/Portfolio Manager.

An Agile approach

The history of Agile goes all the way back to 1957 when building software for IBM and Motorola. In these projects incremental development techniques were used, which today are known as Agile. [4] Although, not knowing what to name and how to classify the way of working with the projects they were still practicing it and knew that it was different from Waterfall. The modern way of an Agile approach and the approach today classified as Agile was officially introduced in 2001 by a group of professional software developers. These developers met to discuss alternative project methodologies and the outcome of this meeting was the Manifesto for Agile Development [5]. Even though the approach was discussed and mapped out by software professionals, the Agile approach of Project Management is adapted by more than IT teams. Marketers, universities, the military, and even the automotive industry are using the Agile methodology to develop and deliver innovative products/services in markets or environments who possesses uncertainty.

Over the years, the Agile approach has turned into several Agile Frameworks suited for different projects and situations. A selection of the most popular Agile Frameworks is Scrum, Kanban, Lean, and XP. [6] Despite of the Agile Frameworks being used in the given project, the project manager has the usual five phases to manage in the temporary project life cycle: [2] [p. 46-47]

  1. Project Initiation
  2. Project Planning
  3. Project Execution
  4. Project Monitoring and Control
  5. Project Closure

What makes these frameworks different is how they approach these five phases.

The Manifesto for Agile Development published in 2001 clearly specifies the fundamental principles of the approach:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tool
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contact negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

In contrast to a straightforward linear approach like the waterfall model, Agile projects consist of a sequence of steps (known as sprints in Scrum). The steps can be seen in Figure 1. This sequence can easily turn into a cycle if the product/service does not perform as expected and agreed with the client in step 5. In this case, the sequence will start up again from step 1 and keep going until satisfaction is achieved. This approach is at most used as a cycle from the beginning - a project is cut into small pieces and developed though many cycles/sprints of the Agile Methodology in close contact with the client.

Figure 1 - The cycle of Agile Methodology [7].

A short description of the five steps in Figure 1:

  • Step 1: Mapping processes to determine the starting point and the "Actual State".
  • Step 2: Optimize a process with the right combination of technologies.
  • Step 3: Choose technologies and review options with the client. The client is part of the project from the very beginning and feedback is vital.
  • Step 4: Weekly/monthly delivery of developments for the end user to operate and request for changes. It is ideal, that the end user is part of the process of development and testing.
  • Step 5: Evaluate through Key Performance Indicators (KPI's), reports and other metrics, in order to monitor that the process is working as agreed.

Agile project management consists of five key components: User stories, Sprints, Stand-up meetings, Agile board, and Backlog [1].

User stories is a way of defining a work request from a client on a high level. The story contains just enough information for the team, that they can make a reasonable estimate of the effort required in order to make the user story come true. The story is written from the users perspective and tells what the client wants and why - their goals.

Sprints are these short iterations or cycles seen in Figure 1. One iteration is usually between one and three weeks. The teams attend a sprint planning meeting before the actual sprint, where they get tasks assigned. The idea is to repeat these iterations, until the sub-product/feature is working as agreed with the client. Once the sprint is over, the product is reviewed, adjustments are made, if necessary, and a new sprint can begin to improve the product with another sub-product/feature, until the product or service is completely done and the client is satisfied.

Stand-up meetings is an important part of the Agile approach. It does not take up a lot of time, usually about 10 minutes, and are a way to ensure everyone is informed and on track of the ongoing sprint. The meetings got they name because all participants are required to stand up during the meeting - this helps to keep the meeting short.

Agile board helps you as the project manager and your team to track the progress of the project. This can be as simple as a whiteboard with post-it notes, but can also be more complex and informative within your project management software, with project documents recommended by the Project Management Institute (PMI), such as activity attributes, activity list, assumption log, lessons learned register, milestone list, project team assignments etc. [3] [p. 198].

Backlog As project requests are added on a ongoing basis, they become great stories in the backlog. During the sprint planning, these stories in the backlog are being moved into the sprint to be completed throughout the cycle. As the project manager it is a vital task to manage your backlog in an Agile Environment.

Planning the whole Project Life Cycle using The Stage Gate model

The history of the Stage Gate model goes all the way back to the 1940s, and was developed for large-scale engineering projects and has been used by many organizations since then [8]. Often organizations driven by a need of quick idea-to-market launches. The Stage Gate model is a linear project management tool, build up by stages of development, followed by benchmarks for assessment, in this model called gates. This model is ideal for projects that involve many, and/or large teams across departments in an organization. It is typically used for development of new products, software launches and business-wide changes.

The model consists of five key steps/stages. These stages are designed to prevent the project from getting off the track and continue to the next stage without agreement from the most important stakeholders (top-management, clients, etc.). These five steps are: Scoping, Building the case plan, Development, Testing and Validation and Launch [8]. Between each Stage is a gate to the next Stage. An overview of the model can be seen in Figure 2.

Figure 2 - The Stage Gate model.

Before the first stage, every project is kickstarted with a discovery phase, where the idea is defined, and where the project starts to take shape. Stakeholders gather and participate in brainstorming. At this point, the thoughts has no boundaries. Once the idea is more concrete, key stakeholders will gather and discuss the upcoming project, and agree on the three important parts of a project illustrated by the previous mentioned Iron Triangle: Time, cost and quality (scope).

Stage 1 - Scoping: In this stage, many critical decisions and angles are analyzed and discussed between key stakeholders. There is now a new product/business opportunity in the pipe line, and strengths and weaknesses need to be identified in order for the stakeholders, and especially the project manager, to have a 360-degree overview of the upcoming project. This stage does also require risk-management. What is the risk factors for the upcoming project? Will a possible launch bring any new competitors, and how will the current competitors react to this launch?

Stage 2 - Building the case plan: The second stage is actually quite similar to the ideation stage and the scoping stage, the difference is the level of details - now the project starts to become very concrete. This stage is typically resource-intensive and can be divided into four key steps: Define and analyze your product, Build your business case, Build your project plan, review the feasibility.

Stage 3 - Development: As the name suggests, now it is time to get started - the development teams starts to develop the product step by step. This stage is also known as the prototype stage.

Stage 4 - Testing & Validation: This stage is a quality assurance of the developed product. Does the almost finished product, live up to the standard agreed with the client? It is also at this stage, where market/field testing is prepared. A good idea is to test the product on the target user. After testing the product, adjustments can be made and the product is ready for the last stage (if is pass though the gate - more about that later).

Stage 5 - Launch: When all of the stakeholders agreed on a finished product and have signed off, the quality has been tested, then the product is ready for the final launch into the market. This is the moment where the project managers, product managers and the leadership review, whether or not the Stage Gate process was a success or not and whether the outcome/product was a success or not.

The project management part can easily be a success without a successful product/service in the end after market launch, and reverse. ISO 21500:2012 acknowledge the role of context and states, that external factors may impact project performance and success. This includes factors outside the organizational boundaries such as socio-economic, geographical, political etc. [9] [p. 5] The project manager has the responsibility to consider these factors before project start, but some external, and sometimes also internal factors, are not possible to predict and may occur during the project.

The model consists of a Gate between every Stage. The work completed in each Stage must meet a set of criteria before the project is approved to move on to the next stage. These criteria are Quality of execution, Business rationale, and Action plan [10]. Quality execution is a review of whether or not the project meet the preset standards. Business rationale is a criteria to ensure that there is an ongoing business rationale for the project. Action plan is a resource review - is there enough resources left to continue and complete the project?

Once the project manager has reviewed the project at the current stage by the criteria, the project manager have to make a decision. The possible decisions after the gate review and before, possibly, moving to the next stage are: Go, Kill, Hold, and Recycle. The names indicated quite well the decision. Go simply means that the project is approved and ready for the next stage. Kill means that the project is dead. After the review is was determined that the quality, business rationale, or resources did not meet the threshold to keep the project going. Hold means that the project is being put on the shelf for the possibility for a later on continuation. This could be to reserve resources or give time to other projects in the pipeline which is certainly being more important.

A pro with The Stage Gate model is the ability to Portfolio Management throughout the process and during the gate reviews between every stage in the project life cycle. According to PMI one of the most important questions to ask yourself as a part of the Portfolio Management team in an organization is:

"Which portfolio components will best support the organization's business strategies and goals?" [11] [p. 27]

With that said, this is a way to take a look on the project in a wider perspective, in an organizational perspective. These gate reviews is not small talks about the plans of the weekend, but is discussions were the purpose is to ensure that the company's development resources are used on the right projects and, if necessary, that unprofitable projects are closed as early as possible on an informed basis. Therefore, a comparison is made at the same time of all development projects, and their current performance and potential in the market - and this is Portfolio Management. This is also the managers tool to ensure that the portfolio of development projects reflects the company's strategy and roadmaps, where it is stated which major new products are forecasted in the coming months, years or decades [12].

The hybrid - A cocktail consisting of Agile and Stage Gate

Combining the Stage Gate model with an Agile approach into a hybrid is actually using an overall process with an associated toolbox. Stage Gate is the overall planning, decision making and portfolio management tool for the company's innovative projects and the Agile approach is a tool to develop and settle the sub-parts of the total projects. The idea is to use an Agile Approach within the stages of the Stage Gate model. With the Agile approach it is accepted that the understanding of the product develops over time and that features will change. Therefor, combining the Stage Gate with Agile development methods, are best suited for innovation projects with high complexity where the result from the start is not given.

According to DS 21500:2012, monitoring/controlling is connected to all phases of a project [9] [p. 11]. The Stage Gate model includes only testing and validating in stage four. With the combination of the Agile method within the stages, monitoring/controlling is completed with stakeholders and target users on an ongoing basis within every iteration. It can be argued that an Agile approach within the Stage Gate model is a strong compliment to each other, since the Stage Gate model is an predictive way of managing projects and Agile an adaptive way. An illustration of the hybrid can be seen in Figure 3.

Figure 3 - The hybrid consisting of Agile and Stage Gate.

The hybrid can be used for innovation of both digital solutions, physical products and service products. Developing a physical product or a service is quite different from developing software:

  • Product increments created during each sprint in the Agile Stage Gate method needs to be somewhat modified from the IT approach. Some early-adopter manufacturing firms have made an adjustment here. They define these product increments as "any deliverable that is tangible, the result of work done by the project team" [13]. These tangible deliverables can be resultats from market research, 3D drawings of the concepts, protocepts - anything that can give an overview of the progress to stakeholders and target users to deliver feedback.
  • In IT, product backlog can be linked directly to the feature that have less interdependence. In hardware, features and elements have great interdependence, e.g. when placing a plug and a wiring harness.
  • In hardware, early decisions on design may be crucial for later options.

Dr. Robert G. Cooper, President of Product Development Institute, made a study of five major Danish companies. These companies are manufacturing firms in a range from consumer products to B2B heavy equipment. These firms revealed all positive results after implementation of the hybrid and reported many of the same results found in the IT world, when using the Agile approach, namely Design Flexibility with a faster response to changes, improved productivity, communication, and coordination among team members, improves focus on the project leading to better prioritization, and a higher morale among team members [14]. This study supports the use of the tool for more than just software development.

Implementation in your company

The project manager plays a critical role in the leadership of a project team in order to achieve the project's objective. With that said, management and leadership is not the same and do have different tasks depending on the role according to the British Standards [15] [p. 60-61]. As previously mentioned in the abstract, you need to know your team well as the Project Manager [3] [p. 51-52], in order to set aside the necessary team-roles. Within the Agile approach there is a few common roles: scrum master, product owner, team members, and stakeholders. When the team-roles are all set, you need to setup and controle the key components of the approach in every iteration (User stories, sprints, stand-up meetings, agile board, backlog).

According to three companies (Weibel Scientific, Easyfood & DPA Microphones) who have all tested the hybrid-model/approach, it is cheap and easy to get started [12]. It is necessary that everybody knows what to do when starting out, using this method. A good idea could be a couple of training days for the sprint-team, and having an experienced coach on the side for the first "real" sprints after implementation and training. The application barriers can be seen as managerial, since this method presupposes a concrete focus and distribution of ressources. In many companies, a lot of development projects is going on at the same time and this is where the good Project and/or Portfolio Manager enters the picture. With this Agile Stage Gate method the sprints and coordination-meetings puts the talk about ressources in focus and make it visual in the daily work. This forces the developers, mangers and senior executive to prioritize. An effective Project and/or Portfolio Manager should have well developed leadership and management skills, to be able to interact with senior executive, management and other stakeholders [11] [p. 15].

Due to the low implementation cost and tests/studies done with this hybrid model, an application is advantageous. The hybrid drives innovation, it is highly adaptive, and it accelerates development. It actually reduces time-to-market by 30% compared to a standard/classic Stage Gate [16].

Limitations of the tool

All approaches and methods got their limitations and this hybrid is no exception. In the following is a list of limitations and difficulties to be aware of as the Project Manager:

  • It can be difficult to secure dedicated team members focused on only one project at a time.
  • It can be difficult linking project teams to the organization as a whole [16].
  • The hybrid lack a bit of scalability for large projects with many interconnected sub-projects. It is a tough task to manage a whole program using this hybrid tool. But it is definitely useful within parts of the program.
  • It is hard to manage for distributed global teams sitting at different continents in different timezones due to the use of sprints and daily meetings.
  • A common concern about an Agile approach is too much time spent in meetings compared to time spent working.

Bibliography

Citation

  1. 1.0 1.1 Workfront, Agile Project Management, accessed 10 February 2021, https://www.workfront.com/project-management/methodologies/agile
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Geraldi, J., Thuesen, C., Oehmen, J. & Stingl, V.. Doing Projects: A Nordic Flavour to Managing Projects, 2nd edition, 2017, ISBN: 978-87-7193-076-4.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Project Management Institute, Inc., Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide), 6th edition, 2017, ISBN: 978-1-62825-184-5.
  4. Altexsoft, Agile Project Management: Best Practices and Methodologies, accessed 11 February 2021, https://www.altexsoft.com/whitepapers/agile-project-management-best-practices-and-methodologies/
  5. Fowler, M. & Highsmith, J., The Agile Manifesto, August 1, 2001 accessed February 11, 2021, https://www.drdobbs.com/open-source/the-agile-manifesto/184414755
  6. Agile-Mercurial, Comprehensive List of Agile Frameworks, accessed 11 February 2021, https://agile-mercurial.com/2019/02/06/agile-frameworks-fact-sheet/
  7. Sudarsan Reddy, Agile Project Management Methodology - Manifesto, Frameworks and Process, accessed 10 February 2021, https://medium.com/@sudarhtc/agile-project-management-methodology-manifesto-frameworks-and-process-f4c332ddb779
  8. 8.0 8.1 Project Manager, Phase-Gate Process in Project Management: A Quick Guide, by Scavetta, A., Nov 5, 2019, accessed 11 February, 2021, https://www.projectmanager.com/blog/phase-gate-process
  9. 9.0 9.1 International Standard, ISO 21500:2012, Guidance on project management, 1st edition, 2012.
  10. Wrike, The Ultimate Guide To the Phase Gate Process, by Daly, N., Oct 29, 2020, accessed 11 February, 2021, https://www.wrike.com/blog/phase-gate-process-project-management/
  11. 11.0 11.1 Project Management Institute Inc., The Standard for Portfolio Management, 4th edition, 2017, ISBN: 978-162825-197-5.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Effektivitet, Agile Stage Gate - en effektiv innovationsmodel også ved udvikling af hardware, by Edwards, T., Senior Researcher, DTU Management Engineering, accessed 11 February, 2021, https://effektivitet.dk/magasin/servitization/agile-stage-gate-en-effektiv-innovationsmodel-ogsa-ved-udvikling-af-hardware/
  13. Innovation Management, Integrating Agile with Stage-Gate - How New Agile-Scrum Methods Lead to Faster an Better Innovation, by Dr. Cooper, R., accessed 11 February 2021, https://innovationmanagement.se/2016/08/09/integrating-agile-with-stage-gate/
  14. Dr. Robert G. Cooper, Agile-Stage-Gate Hybrids - The Next Stage for Product Development, by Dr. Cooper, R., Jan-Feb 2016, http://www.bobcooper.ca/images/files/articles/0/5-Agile-Stage-Gate-Hybrids.pdf
  15. AXELOS and Cabinet Office, Managing Successful Programmes, 4th edition, 2011, ISBN: 9780113313280.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Planisware, What is Agile Stage-Gate?, 2019, https://www.planisware.com/hub/blog/what-agile-stage-gate


Annotation

2. Geraldi, J., Thuesen, C., Oehmen, J. & Stingl, V.. Doing Projects: A Nordic Flavour to Managing Projects, 2nd edition, 2017, ISBN: 978-87-7193-076-4.

The book "Doing Projects: A Nordic Flavour to Managing Projects" gives you a lot of information about Project Management and provides a lot of recommendations and tools for you to be a better Project Manager in your daily tasks, no matter the size of your projects or challenges. This book divides projects into four interesting perspectives of Project Management: Purpose, People, Complexity, and Uncertainty as previously mentioned in this article. This is a great introduction to these perspectives with illustrations based on real life projects, key challenges and classic mistakes, advices on how to do it, and the relationship of the perspectives with the ISO 21500. The aim of the book is to provide general information about the use of ISO 21500 standards.

12. Effektivitet, Agile Stage Gate - en effektiv innovationsmodel også ved udvikling af hardware, by Edwards, T., Senior Researcher, DTU Management Engineering, accessed 11 February, 2021, https://effektivitet.dk/magasin/servitization/agile-stage-gate-en-effektiv-innovationsmodel-ogsa-ved-udvikling-af-hardware/

This article is done by Kasper Edwards, Senior Researcher at DTU Management Engineering and is about the advantages of using an Agile Stage Gate method developed by DI, GEMBA Innovation, and DTU. It states the outcome of using the method through a study on three Danish companies who have all implemented and used this method in their hardware product development projects. The article describes the processes within the method and how to combine the Agile principles from software development with portfolio management from Stage Gate into managing hardware development projects.

14. Dr. Robert G. Cooper, Agile-Stage-Gate Hybrids - The Next Stage for Product Development, by Dr. Cooper, R., Jan-Feb 2016, http://www.bobcooper.ca/images/files/articles/0/5-Agile-Stage-Gate-Hybrids.pdf

Dr. Robert G. Cooper is one of the most influential innovation thought leaders in the business world today. He pioneered the original research that led to many groundbreaking discoveries including the Stage-Gate Idea-to-Launch process. He has spent more than 30 years studying the practices of thousands of new product projects in thousands of companies and has assembled the world’s most comprehensive research on the topic. In this article, Dr. Robert G. Cooper talk about that leading firms are now beginning to integrate elements of the Agile IT product development method into their traditional gating processes to develop physical products, and that the combination of Agile and Stage Gate methods can provide flexibility, speed, and improved communication in product development.

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