Killed by the stage gate process….

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The little story about Innovation projects

Most of you know about Stage Gate process and how to run it. Very processed, mastered by most of the project managers, it gives the management the nice feeling of controlling the thing. It is widely and greatly appreciated when dealing with R&D projects that have, by nature, a high level of uncertainty (compared to usual business projects). Therefore lots of organisations are using Stage Gate Process to control R&D and Innovation.

First we have to understand to goods and the bads of this kind of project management process. The stage gate process allows to go from an idea to a product passing so-called gates with necessary deliverables: a nice and smooth journey through prototyping, test, marketing or product launch phases. Thus it allows to control and monitor the project all along its life… Which can be kind of short in a way. Most of innovation projects don’t have a solid Business Case. To pass a gate the marketing documents are as essential as the technical ones. Thus a project can miss a gate due to its lack of a solid BC, which can be normal for an innovation project.

However is it so normal that an innovation project has a weak BC? Not so. If your process starts with a phase that allows you to collect and identify your clients needs and if you shape your project according to those needs then you should be able to design a nice BC. Nice enough to pass one gate. To avoid this mistake, some use a two dimension analysis to define your gate process one with a marketing scale the other one with a technical one. But doing so, the trap is that you will ask so much so early to the project that you will kill it before it actually validates its hypothesis and is strong enough to answer your requests..

I strongly recommend, based on my experience within intermediate size companies and a international groups, to differentiate projects that use the stage-gate process and those not. Instead of the Stage Gate process, an adapted version of the lean start-up or Agile will considerably increase the number of successful projects and thus new products on the shelf (with clear value proposition and identified clients) and drastically reduce the Time-to-Market. Doing so, you have to define R&D projects (those using Stage Gate process) and Innovation project (those using your own dedicated, fine tuned process). The definition must be yours according to your organisation, your needs and your goals. However I would say that Stage Gate should be applied only for mastered development such as incremental upgrading of services or products, new versions or slight updates and for new products/service within the comfort area of your organisation. For breakthrough innovation, brand new approach etc…, please do it another way and save the life of your innovations.

Too much gates will kill your projects, your innovation, your future. Adapting processes to improve the « go-real » ratio and the Time-to-market is not only necessary, it is vital for the wealth and the growth of our organisation.

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