Surprisingly the Stage-Gate concept was created in the 1980’s and led to Robert G Cooper’s different evolutions of this evolving and absorbing many new practices and experiences gained by different organizations across this time.
There is no question the Stage-Gate process has had a significant impact on the conception, development and launch of new products. Yet there have been consistent criticisms as the world of innovation has moved on. Today it is faster-paced, far more competitive and global and become less predictable. The cries of the Stage-Gate process as being too linear, too rigid and far too planned, bordering on prescriptive. The gates are too structured and the constant ‘creep’ of the controlling bureaucracy surrounding it in paperwork, checklists and justification has simply led to so much non-value-added work.
The idea-to-launch gating system is under more threat today than ever before.
Is there a potential new generation or are we just going through the motions, like shifting deckchairs on the titanic as it steams towards a submerged iceberg? Bob Cooper has been open enough to challenge his thinking constantly and at this point of time he is reinventing the Stage-Gate again.
The details of the new process and its different multi-functions are still a work-in-progress. What he is looking for is something far more agile, vibrant, dynamic, flexible gating process that has as its outcomes a leaner, faster and more adaptive and risk-based approach. This alone in its principles is a great starting point. Bob has been writing on this with different papers that have included “What’s Next? After Stage-Gate”, a far more academic one I have been (slowly) working through.
So what can we see that is ticking away in the new Stage-Gate thinking?
Will this be enough to reduce the criticisms, will it be adaptive enough to meet today’s needs? I will attempt to shorten down this thinking and try to summarize the main points.
It has three parts to it- it focuses on being 1) Adaptive and flexible, 2) Agile in its deliverables and 3) Accelerated to push the development process.
1. The adaptive and flexible part
Any idea-to-launch system will take its power from being adaptive and flexible and will need to shape itself to the context of each particular project. That is radical enough in any system. The qualities are going to come from four attributes: spiral development cycles, context-based stage and gate definitions and activities, risk-based contingency models and flexible criteria for any ‘Go/Kill decision making.
For instance the spiral development will be based on ‘build-test-feedback-revised’ iterations. The context-based stage and gate definitions and activities to accommodate multiple versions to deal with full five stage higher-risk projects, lighter versions for moderate risk projects and an express version for small developments. There are different adaptations taking place with users already working through these.
For instance HP has approached this by geographical needs with an emergent model for start-ups, an agile model for growth sectors and a traditional phase-growth review structure for mature markets.
P&G have not employed different processes but focused more on the value-driven process that focuses even harder on the front-end.
The risk-contingency is about constant steps and learning to gather information to reduce uncertainty. Here teams are working far more with blank canvas approaches to identify key unknowns and uncertainties, then determining what information is needed to validate and move in highly flexible and efficient ways. The value of having an experienced team helps here.
Finally in this part the flexible criteria for ‘Go/Kill’ decisions become the change in order of magnitude for me. Financial criteria begin to take a back seat; it is more on strategic criteria as it has always been so difficult to predict the longer-term impact. The move to non-financial criteria will radically alter the dynamics within innovation in my opinion - if this really does take hold.
2. The Agile approach
The stage-gate needs to become far more nimble, speed is the essence. The growing adoption of the Agile development process applied to software is the point of change. The use of “sprints” that are “time boxed” and “scrums” for meetings, are designed to deliver working (physical) products as functioning prototypes. These become “physical milestone objectives” and if these are not achieved then you move into the risk of termination. The emphasis is demonstrating to stakeholders working physical progress. Clearly this becomes more resource intensive but true innovation does require that.
Some organizations are approving projects and resources to have unfettered six-month periods with no rules and no reviews but at the end of this agreed period ‘something’ has to be seen and tested by a customer.
Equally the drive to cut out the “work that adds no value” has involved using Lean Six Sigma methods or similar to take past business case documents from 30 to 90 pages to now 4 pages by Johnson & Johnson. P&G for instance are working on mere six page deliverable packages according to Bob Cooper.
3. Accelerated Process
The focus is on reducing the time wasting activities through a more value-stream analysis, accelerating by overlapping stages, encouraging concurrent activities, ensuring dedicated teams are assigned to properly resource projects, those real concerted efforts to sharpen up the fuzzy front end and automate these through clear support project systems are all being worked upon.
Toyota uses a synchronized process for simultaneous execution and search for ways to improve on this continuously.
The emphasis is to maximize speed, working really hard on scoping the front end in greater detail, and asking key questions on where the right track is and what this needs in resource, time and development.
So there is significant evidence that Stage-Gate is evolving
Some of this is evolutionary, such as fast-track versions, and some more revolutionary, based on more risk-orientated contingency models. The continued need is to get the next-generation process to be adaptive, flexible, agile and accelerated. The use of the evolving value proposition through prototypes and early beta market testing versions is part of this.
The starting with blank canvases, exploring constantly the uncertainties and risks - determining the critical but evolving assumptions, and working to deliver the right deliverable at the right stage to validate the key assumptions - calls for a completely different mind-set.
Is this radical or simply catching up with the changes that we have been seeing taking place in innovation to deal with the pace of change? One that can fit better in our evolving global world that is more impatient than ever, not bothering to wait for those focused on managing the stages and gates in old world ways. A time to move on I think for us all?