Many organizations have made Stage-Gate or a mutation of it, their ‘go-to’ innovation process that all innovation must ‘somehow’ pass through. Squeezing all types of innovation through this, for whatever people claim is a linear process, is simply wrong.
You can simply say: “we destroyed much to get sometimes so little out as the final outcome, when initially it was seen to be so promising.”
The difficulty is that we are still struggling to find a real alternative, although there have been some recent noteworthy attempts, firstly by Jose A Briones and his Spiro-Level 3D approach and then by Paul R Williams, of the American Institute for Innovation Excellence, to move the discussions beyond the Stage-Gate process from this linear into more spiral concepts and beyond.
There has been an awful lot written on Stage-Gate, some people attacking it and suggesting it “guarantees mediocrity for your business”. Clayton Christensen has suggested “the Stage-gate system is not suited to the task of assessing innovation whose purpose is to build new growth businesses, but most companies continue to follow it simply because they see no alternative”
Stage-Gate has certainly earned its place for product management.
Stage-Gate is an ideas-to-launch process that encompasses a solid body of knowledge built up over the years and has for many become the blueprint for managing the NPD process, reinforcing effectiveness and efficiency as its core discipline. I would argue that’s it! It reinforces but at what cost? Innovation can actually miss out! Often it can also extract out much of the very process that we need from great innovation to leap forward and grow our businesses today. More on this later.
Employing this Stage-Gate methodology you can feel safe that there is behind it a body of knowledge on the best practice gleaned from studies of thousands of new product developments. The process takes you through stages or hurdles, passing through gates where ‘go/ kill’ decisions should be made. Organizations that thrive on having a ‘regime’ hold ‘fast’ to the Stage-Gate as their way to manage innovation. This rigidity of a given mindset is one of the real concerns about being totally reliant on the Stage-Gate. It works for product development that is more incremental in nature –the bread and butter of most businesses.
A really short history of the Stage-Gate first.
Stage-Gate was developed, is registered as a trademark and certainly popularized by Robert Cooper. His first edition was published in 1986 in the early days of understanding the management of the innovation process. He has since updated with a second edition in 1993 and from this it gained its real traction as the recognized process, and established the term “Stage-Gate” clearly to manage within any product development process. His third edition in 2001 shifted the focus and became more taking the concept further on accelerating idea-to-launch. In 2011 he gave us a completely revised and updated fourth edition. Robert Cooper reminds us that his Stage-Gate process has become the most widely used method for managing new products in industry today.
It has been suggested that this Stage-Gate process is a conceptual and operational map. Well, yes for NPD only maybe it is but today with all the other types of innovation needed to be considered by organizations it is NOT really capable of living up to this claim. I grant you can think through the process conceptually on how to manage this but I feel this grants Stage-Gate more than it really can offer. It is a stage-gate decision process for product development.
Do linear processes manage all the different types of innovation?
Organizations have become so use to thinking only product innovation they are attempting to drive ‘any’ innovation through the same system. This approach is placing so many self-inflicted wounds on the organization, often in the most painful way possible; through lost opportunities on achieving more significant growth, lost chances to fundamentally change the competitive game and ill-fitting attempts to fit innovation through this one process system.
Original fresh ideas get morphed into completely different end products that seem to become more incremental the further they have to accommodate all the jumping over these hurdles and passing through the stages and gates. It becomes the skill in trying to avoid being ‘killed off’ for often a lack of validation (often obscure) and that famous cry of “give me proof” often of the unknown- how can you?
Stage-Gate ‘plays’ right into the hands of the bean counter, the risk reducer, the keeper of maximizing productivity, efficiency and effectiveness. Each gate, each hurdle forces the denominator down, mistakenly thinking this is reducing cost risk (often of the only true innovative part) and effective management of time will serve the organization well. This fuels the short-term protectionism we all cry about today, as well as it adds even more to the long-term detriment of mediocre innovation entering the market. We are still failing to ignite growth and continuing to disappoint customers with underwhelming offerings that still doesn’t meet their needs.
The Stage-Gate is not the panacea for managing innovation
I would argue we should stop regarding the Stage-Gate as the panacea for managing all of your innovation needs. Stage-Gate handles the incremental product cycle fairly well, but when you are on a more open innovation platform collaboration it struggles to be flexible, agile and fit the different challenges presented by the collaborating parties.
True innovation goes through such an iterative process; processes like Stage-Gate are simply not equipped to manage all of what this entails. Nor does it really pick up well on the growing impact any potential new business model innovation might signify, as it constantly wants to refer back to excepted existing practices and the structures in place and not novel or radically altering ones that can challenge the existing business model. Can you imagine something completely breakthrough or totally disruptive being forced through a Stage-Gate NPD process?
What also does happen when you have to work through separately the potential of the service innovation dimension or the myriad of other types of innovation? Too often we retrofit service instead of running this in parallel.
We have arrived, it seems to me, at a certain point where innovation is often being projected forward to a given solution and then worked back, so it can pass through the Stage-Gate system. Sometimes this is right if you spot a unique opportunity for a job-to-be-done need but we have to be more than careful of this ‘forming’ habit, it can exclude even greater insights and discoveries even here.
Recognizing limitations AND managing in new and different ways.
So we can recognize that Stage-Gate can work well for incremental and well planned out innovation but it ‘stutters’ and can ‘die’ when you need radical, new-to-the-world breakthroughs as you enter those far too many unknowns to try to run them through a system.
Whichever way you ‘wrap’ Stage-Gate it is still a linear process that has to go through justification at each stage and pass through the ‘gate’ in resolving the criteria expected, before it can go on. Irrespective of the innovation this can often load the process with bureaucracy, internal politics and tensions. You increasingly focus on preparing for these ‘gate’ meetings, losing valuable time often not on the idea and concept itself.
Invariably the questions asked to justify and validate requires much rethinking, leading too aspects of the proposal rewritten and then resubmitted, turning even more into growing time delays. This leads to escalating upwards through the gatekeepers to the senior manager, who is not fully engaged in the process, you lose even more time, he often does not have context, you lose precious opportunity, and you lose money in delays while this all gets sorted out, eventually and it goes on and on with growing conflict and tensions.
There is also a shift to ‘status and attainment’ on sitting on these reviewing committees rather than bringing real ‘value and benefit’ and often this gets confused to the detriment of the process . The process often dominates not the product concept itself. Stage-Gate might have become simply a safety first decision-making tool than an actual NPD process to help and assist.
You begin to justify the many unknowns somehow, you cater to the constant demands for proof at every step of the way, or otherwise you will never get your products out of the door.
We just end up with wicked compromises and the original idea deserves better, much better than that. If we were honest with ourselves, we shave things off, we dilute, we radically alter what were initially great looking concepts and reduces them down to a pygmy of the original ‘wow’ concept.
Lean and rapid principles have some foundation value
I think where Dr Cooper has continued to explore in his Stage-Gate journey has been the move towards his lean and rapid principles. Those are closer to universal needs of all innovation. These are
- Have a clear customer focus
- Ensure as much front-end loaded as you can in assessment and testing
- Spiral development- find ways to be more iterative and greater community engagement
- Push for more holistic approaches of effective cross-functional teams
- Seek the right metrics, accountability allocation and continuous improvement
- Focus on building a more effective portfolio management through funnelling and appropriate resource allocation
- Looking to keep pushing for a flexible, adaptable, scalable and efficient process
These are useful ‘generic’ contributions to finding better solutions to having an updated innovation process, irrespective of type (of innovation). A lot about the Stage-Gate has organizing value to incorporate with this more holistic design of a process to manage all innovation ,it should certainly not be discarded but looked at with a different perspective.
What is called for, in my opinion, is to build even more on these lean and rapid principles but also to recognize and go ‘simply beyond’ the often fixating obsession of applying a product development process with decision gates that many currently have. Although it is not a bad organizing principle for business decision checkpoints, we ‘just’ need to go way beyond this to obtain the increased need for flexibility required, by considering all the different types of innovation an organization needs to consider and cater for them in some form of reviewing approach, if we can.
We need a different more agile, adaptable process that deals with innovation outside the ‘norm’ of managing incremental NPD, if we are ever going to move beyond the present, more common incremental mindset prevalent today.
The need to build and extend our capabilities and processes
We must certainly stop trying to treat all innovation projects with the same ‘Stage-Gate’ brush, squeezing it through the same process. We need to develop different ‘templates’ but have perhaps a common recognized set of decision points or organizing principles.
We certainly need to offer more autonomy to teams through a more robust Innovation Governance structure, this is for me critically important. We need to shift the mindset from ‘Go / kill’ to greater informing choices and options to consider. We need to be less reliant on data, more ready to sense, listen and make informed decisions as we go. We must make sure we capture the alignment with senior management on the strategic goals, the priorities and allocating appropriate resources according to the innovation type and challenge.
We need to allow for a greater freedom of thought, of investigating ‘breaking’ ideas, encourage explorations along the way. We need to push for more experimentation, conceptual work, design modelling so as we learn we can quantify, as we quantify we gain increasing identification and organization alignment. We know much of innovation is unstable, throwing out fluid information that is often contradictory; we need to capture these differences in more flexible, intuitive ways.
This calls for a lot more agility in thinking, in accepting often erratic behaviours to see if we can suddenly leap ahead. Hurdles, keeping to prescribed steps and trying to pass through decision gates needs some very fluid approaches but can still be in disciplined, informed ways but with totally different mindsets of searching for ‘better’ innovation outcomes.
The innovation system required today needs to be more flexible, adaptive, agile and scalable.
The system should not dictate innovation, it has to be more adapted to our different innovation needs and their circumstances so we can maximise innovation’s potential to lead growth.
We need to recognize that a breakthrough concept, a disruptive game changer, a new business model proposition or a multiple type innovation (product, service and BM) need different approaches, all much faster to be developed but with increasing levels of uncertainties being built into the ‘system’ not just taken out because we are uncomfortable with this or unsure how to handle this. Simply ask others to help you, there is no shame in this.
There have been significant changes in our understanding of innovation since Stage-Gate was first introduced. In the process, the culture required, the ways to manage, to align and to develop have all evolved. We must stop being a slave to the innovation system in place, often left over through legacies in the system and find ways to go beyond the often rigid, linear Stage-Gate process that organizations are locked into.
Innovation is complex and adaptive
Innovation should be understood as a system that will always have non-linear behaviours, it cannot be stage-managed in isolated events. It is complex and adaptive and the more we recognize the power of unpredictability, the significant variations, need for constant interactions and the careful selection of those ideas that need to be carried forward, the closer we might get to finding a more universally accepted innovation system.
Let’s stop trying to force innovation by jumping hurdles and closing gates that often do not apply, so we end up with self-inflicted wounds because we were on the wrong track.