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Are You Using Stage Gates for Innovation?

“When we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.”

Marie Kondo

Marie Kondo took the world by storm with her approach to home decluttering. By keeping only those items that “spark joy,” you can tidy up your home and cleanse your mind. And while this approach to home cleansing might sound like it has nothing to do with business and innovation – it does. There’s a clear method. You don’t just toss everything out and start from scratch. Nor do you keep everything whether or not it’s benefiting you. There’s a clear process for knowing when to keep something and when to let go.

Knowing when to let go or pivot in business can be just as hard – maybe even harder. After all, it’s not just your favorite pair of pants at risk. It’s your investment. Your time. Your money. Your employees. Your business goals. So much is at stake. Even when your team has embraced a culture of innovation, you still need to ensure you’ve adopted a process of innovation. After all, there’s not typically a problem with a lack of ideas in most organizations. The big challenge is… what do you do with those ideas? Or better yet… how do you know if it’s a good idea?

Stephen Borengasser, VP of product management at Three Five Two, suggests companies that innovate successfully have a process to ensure their investment returns value over time. One way to do this is by “Marie Kondo-ing” your innovation projects. Or, in business terms: the Stage-Gate Process.

What is a Stage-Gate Process?

Where did it start? In the 1940s, large-scale mechanical and engineering projects started using a staged or phased approach to investment decisions. Before long, other industries started following suit. One of the most notable being NASA whose oft-cited project planning process broke projects into a series of phases where they had to meet specific criteria before moving on to the next phase. In the 80s, Winning at New Products author Robert G. Cooper and his partner Scott J. Edgett developed a process that would become the Stage-Gate® Innovation Performance Framework. The process elevated value delivery as the key criterion for moving products through the innovation pipeline. Companies could now assess which initiatives to chase based on having met the challenge of providing market value. 

Like Marie Kondo tackles decluttering one category at a time – completing one before moving to another – the Stage-Gate Process provides constraints to keep your innovation projects effective. The Stage-Gate process creates phases where work is done on a project. These phases are finite, with clear timelines where work is done. But before moving on to the next phase, the “ilities” – desirability, feasibility and viability – are assessed. Do people want this? Can we actually do this? Can we make money with this? If – and only if – the project meets those criteria do you continue. This reduces uncertainty and increases the likelihood of success. With each stage comes more resources, financial investment – but also a clearer picture of the end goal and how it will fare in market.

What Should Your Stage-Gate Process Look Like?

Any number of Google searches can give you examples of what a Stage-Gate Process can look like. There’s not necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach. What each phase looks like – and the criteria to move into the next phase – will vary entirely on the project or organization. Don’t expect what you used on one project or at a previous company to apply immediately to another. The Stage-Gate process must be revisited and tweaked with each project. What’s important to remember is that Stage-Gate focuses purely on investment. There must be evidence to continue moving forward (and continue spending money). So before you dive right into building what you think is a great idea, you must establish your stages, where the work gets done, and what you need to know before moving forward.

Let’s take a look at one type of Stage-Gate. This 5-step process seems simple on the surface. And it is simple. What is less simple is the defining characteristics of the intent of each phase – and, more importantly – the outcome required to move into the following phase.

In the first stage, the intent is to discover an unmet need. This can be done through several tactics: audience research, competitor analysis, sentiment analysis, user interviews, and others. However, before developing a concept, the problem must be completely identified. That means the problem must be clearly defined. Ideally, your team should start to have a hypothesis around this problem as well.

The second phase would be concept development. Now you can generate, test, and refine concepts to identify a set of narrow solutions. You don’t need to have the solution clearly defined at this point. It may be better not to. This is where you start to narrow down the possibilities of ways this problem could be solved.  

In the third phase, you get into more detail about the types of solutions you could leverage to address your problem. At this point (if you haven’t been doing so already), you should also address the disability, feasibility, and viability of the solution so you can determine how you want to pilot the project. You also need to determine the project’s “success ” criteria before piloting it.

Next, create a pilot. You will want to measure and validate against your success criteria you established in the previous phase. This lets you get some inklings of how the product will perform in the market. Before moving onto commercialization, you should provide recommendations for launching the product to a wider market.

Finally, you would move to commercialization – where you (hopefully) can generate income from your product. 

While this process looks and feels linear, the reality is you may spend a few cycles in one or more stages trying to meet the criteria for further investment. That’s ok. A failed Stage-Gate allows you to further investigate and validate if your project will create value for both your customers and your business. 

A Few Watchouts

No process is perfect, no matter how effective. Three of the most common critiques of the Stage-Gate process are that (1) it’s too rigid, (2) the further you go in the process, the more bureaucratic it becomes, and finally, (3) it takes too long to get to learnings. No team gets it right the first time, but the beauty of the Stage-Gate process is that you have to make it your own. It has to line up with the goals of the product team and with the organization. 

Constraints often drive creativity. By shaping your process to the needs of your product org, you’ve got the flexibility to drive continuous learning and value for the organization while still protecting investments with sound data.

What Does Marie Kondo Have to Do With the Stage-Gate Process?

A ton! As mentioned earlier, she has a process for decluttering. She doesn’t say to just throw everything out and start again (as tempting as that may be once you start). What she does require is that you have to justify why to keep an item – not why you should throw it out. It’s much harder for us to think of reasons for keeping items. It has to have a purpose. It has to “spark joy.” If not, get rid of it.

This same principle applies to innovation projects. It’s easy to get attached to a project. But it’s important to critically examine it at each phase and decide if it’s worth continuing. And while Marie Kondo’s method is based on feelings such as “sparking joy,” the Stage-Gate process eliminates the feelings, allowing you to be objective to know if you should continue. You have to justify continuing the project. If you can’t justify continuing, you have to pivot or let it go. 

There’s one more thing to remember. When you decide to let something go, Marie Kondo tells you to give it away with gratitude. That’s another thing you can apply to your Stage-Gate process. If an item doesn’t meet the criteria to move into the next phase, give it away with gratitude. You’ve learned a lot. It’s worth it to give gratitude for what you have learned from the experience with the project. And while you may not need it going forward, always apply what you’ve learned to the next project. So next time your team wants to start an innovation project, be sure to put a process in place to know if your project is “sparking joy” or if it’s time to let it go with gratitude.

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