Jumping Hurdles and Closing Gates on Innovation

by Paul Hobcraft

Jumping Hurdles and Closing Gates on InnovationMany 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.

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.

Certainly 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. Of course, if you want to just play safe but can you afford to just do that in today’s highly competitive world? It works for product development that is more incremental in nature –the bread and butter of most businesses so keep it just for that perhaps although I’d still argue this cannot be left to evolve, as vested interests start to kick-in .

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 a 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. The process itself often dominates not the product concept going through the ‘system’

We just end up with wicked compromises and I would argue that surely the original idea deserves better, much better than that.  If we were honest with ourselves, we shave things off, we dilute, and we radically alter what were initially great looking concepts and reduce them down to a pygmy of the original ‘wow’ concept.

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.

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.

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 that. Simply ask others to help you, there is no shame in this but we do need to stop compromising in the name of the system on our innovation concepts.

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, lost in a sea of self-justification because the ‘system’ demands it. Innovation development deserves better than that.

image credit: kyazoonga.com

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Paul HobcraftPaul Hobcraft runs Agility Innovation, an advisory business that stimulates sound innovation practice, researches topics that relate to innovation for the future, as well as aligning innovation to organizations core capabilities.

No comments

  1. Excellent view and wonderful blog, Paul. Thanks for sharing this!

  2. I am confused. All projects have activities (stages) and decision points (gates). Stage-gates can be iterative, flexible, adaptive, agile and scalable. Let’s break it down: Stages can iterate OR be linear. The number of stages and gates vary according the project requirements. Making good project leadership choices prevents over or under-use of stage-gate.

  3. It would be great if your article could have cited some data, offered situation-based actionable advice, or even real anecdotes. It really just comes off as your opinion about the state of affairs and has a “the sky is falling” air about it.

    In the end though, it is nothing more than saying the same thing that Clay Christenson has been saying regarding the need to split off into a skunk works when an innovative idea needs a different culture and process. So, just read Clay’s books. It’s all in there.

  4. Brian- the Sky falling in- that made me smile. I think there is already so much data on the Stage Gate, we are awash with it. For alternatives much depends on what you are trying to achieve.

    All I was doing was ‘flagging’ not blowing it up. I’ve read all of Clayton Christensen’s work, I must be one of his biggest fans actually. I’m not sure skunk works are the simple answer and I’d say his views were relating more to disruptive. Still if it is, for you,”all in there”, great.

  5. Jack,

    We don’t disagree that you need some decision points and criteria to measure. What you have to allow for is the way you receive ‘breaking’ information that might get ignored or screened out as it does not meet the criteria set or lacks the quantifiable data you expect to jump the hurdle.

    It is not just about projects and discipline, for the majority it is, it is allowing gut feel, instinct, weak signals to ‘seep’ into the opportunity choices. Project management alone, we tend to keep our heads down, pushing forward, if there is more of a ‘receptive’ antenna built in for alternative signals we might end up with different and sometimes better end results. The issue is this can be messy and does go counter to established methods. So not confusion, more a shot across the bow to be alert to additional opportunity as it does pass through what ever hurdles and gates. Cheers

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