Is the ‘Stage Gate’ Process Tool Dead?

by Natalie Reed

During the coffee breaks of our monthly innovation workshops when insight managers, innovation managers and marketers get the chance to mingle and discuss issues, one topic comes up time and time again: “we are investigating dropping stage gates” or “we have just discarded the stage gate process”.

The principles of the five stage gates – scoping, building a business case, development, testing and validation – first started to gather following after Robert G. Cooper published his book ‘Winning at New Products’ in 1986. This model has influenced many companies’ innovation process and still has quite a strong hold. However the grip is loosening and a number of companies are throwing away its shackles.

It seems that there is a growing weigh of opinion, literature and empirical evidence that the ‘stage gate’ methodology doesn’t actually reduce the number of failed launches or guarantee success. In fact, it looks as though it may even hinder it. Why is this?

For true innovation to succeed there needs to be freedom of thought, movement and exploration. Successful concepts do not happen in a straight, simple linear line. Often a first initial idea can morph into a completely different area or give rise to more ideas with greater potential. There needs to be room for learning, trial and error as you go along. Innovation is not a case of deciding what the solution is and then working out how to get there. It is an iterative process with many reinventions, re-births and deaths.

This thinking has started to really gain ground in the last 3-4 years. So how come it is taking companies so long to re-engineer their innovation process? I guess it is quite a simple answer. Corporations are built on procedures and control and the stage gate concept has fitted very nicely with their natural behaviour and attitudes.

However for innovation to thrive it needs freedom to think, move and experiment. It is going to be very interesting to see what emerges as the next ‘in’ model. At present it feels as though each organisation is working out what works best them. So it is goodbye ‘stage gate’ and hello ‘????’

image credit: sysomos.com

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Successful Innovation Does Not Sprout from Focus GroupsNatalie Reed is a Strategy Partner at Reach, consultants for brand positioning, innovation and design. Her specialties include: consumer insights, co-creation, NPD, innovation, brand strategy, communication strategy, packaging strategy, and new brand development.

No comments

  1. “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated!”- so remarked the great writer Mark Twain after a newspaper supposedly prematurely published his obituary.

    Stage Gate will always suffer from its own in-built constraints but it is one of those established processes that doesn’t go away and continues to be handed over from one innovation generation to another. Should it- no I don’t think it should, it still suffers the constraints it has always had- it works for incremental well but not for radical, breakthrough, disruptive and many others yet management like to ‘drive’ it through the stage gate, thus often killing off the real innovating value, a concept might have.

    I hear this growing ‘weight of opinion’ argument also time and again but until there is a solid, decent, tangible alternative the stage gate holds its grip on the incremental space- which is not ideal for the changing need demanded from innovation. The pity is that hello ???? does not help offer an emerging opinion, so lacking this alternative, you continue with the known and accepted.

    If you feel this should be challenged then what is the alternative?

  2. I used Stage Gate and Lean Startup models and I find Lean Startup process and model works much better even for corporate innovation.

  3. Stage gate is not going away. It appears in one form or another often in new product development and project management frameworks. Stage gate for innovation or service / program delivery models works well with “incremental” initiatives – where the idea is fully formed and built 1 step at a time. Stage gate also works well with infrastructure IS/IT projects. It works less well for iterative or incremental with iterative works like coding* new software, or even software configuration/tailoring of an existing product like a SaaS offering for example. Coding and similar creative endeavors seem to benefit more from Agile sprint techniques in terms of efficacy of the end product, satisfaction of the end user, and efficiency getting there sooner rather than later. Stage gate techniques often risk divergence from the charter/scope or business needs at the finish line or their budget – if there is no appetite to expect and incorporate change along the way because most of us operate in dynamic business environments and must respond to changes in needs and new decisions as much as new information regularly in the course of delivery (i.e. development).

  4. In stead of stage-gating Jain (2010) proposes an iterative integrative method of innovating. This is better suited for more radical then merely incremental innovations and better for developing solutions that consist of integrated multi-disciplinary products.

  5. The expression “the ball does not care” when referring to sports applies well to “the project does not care” when referring to innovation project management. That is, any project needs decision points (call them gates) and activities (call them stages). The extent of decision points and activities put in place for a given project is driven by a combination of both leadership and management skills.

  6. As Jack Hamilton says – it doesn’t matter what you call it ‘stage’ level / ‘Gate’ decision or whatever, there needs to be a control process that governs the discipline of the timescale. Otherwise the project / innovation / ideation is going to fail. “Fail to plan = plan to fail”!
    What Stage-Gate does is formalise, and to some extent consolidate lateral and innovative thought into a business context. Current thinking on disruptive marketing (eg Google), is to provide the right context for free thought, then squeeze it into the funnel. There is nothing wrong (or right) with a process funnel as long as there is a profitable result.
    What many business leaders confuse is innovative thought with financial gain. Stage-Gate separates these two early on. The mistake companies make is in trying to rush the innovative bit to get to the financial bit too quickly.
    The other consideration, which has been ignored by others above, is that the detail associated with each stage has to be multi-dimensional and free-flowing. This provides more avenues for exploration. There should, in my view, be more freedom to annex off minor enhancements to the main innovation, so that they can become projects in their own right. The other point to consider is the decision-making process at the early gates should be viewed from outside the corporate tunnel and by an independent marketer who can consider the market landscape the new product or service will sit in.

  7. Stage gate or any process is administered by people. The results reflects on the people chosen to be the gate keepers. Gate keepers are often picked for reasons that do not take into account their actual knowledge and experience in innovation of all the types. Being responsible for all the sales people that sell your products does not define your innovation experience. Being the engineering manager that turns out products and maintains service and creates the next version also does not define innovation experience. Being the chief financial officer does not make you an expert on the accounting numbers associated with something you are not familiar with. I have seen the list of member for only a few gate keeper groups. I was not impressed.

  8. There is an interesting parallel here between the rigid Project Management waterfall method (PMI) used for billions of years and the new Agile/Scrum methodologies. Over time, we have found that both methodologies have their strengths and weaknesses but scrum works better for new things, never created before. Scrum has consistently proven that teams can get to a working product faster and with higher quality.

    Perhaps there is a scrum-like methodology ready to replace stage-gate.

  9. Stage-Gate is an evolving process based on best practices and research. If your company put your Stage-Gate process in 20 years ago and hasn’t evolved to incorporate todays best practices, which may include approaches like Agile/Scrum, new voice of customer techniques, and a wealth of new ideation methods, maybe it’s time to revisit your Stage-Gate Process with us. Ask yourself, is your Stage-Gate process truly enabling and adding value to the innovation process? Want to see how your company measures up? Start with our Benchmarker tm survey to get to the root causes of your innovation issue? It’s very enlightening! Visit us at Stage-Gate.com

  10. Stage gate will not be removed. its being widely used and making more industries productive. I’m also glad that its still evolving. I cant imagine the world without stage gate.

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