How can an Agile Stage-Gate work!


Stage-gate processes for new product development have gotten a bad rap from many who began reading about innovation and product development in the last ten years. Many of the hot frameworks today can track their roots back to the 70”s and earlier. The consummate student of product development can quickly trace threads of KanBan, Agile and Lean.

Recent iterations of these concepts have a common focus on the “fuzzy front end” of the New Product Development Process (NPDP). All working on answering the question, How can a company work with their customer to define the best solution with minimal time and investment before going to scale?

Once that definition begins to harden we have entered the Stage-Gate process world. The focus of Stage-Gate is risk management, the reason it is still effectively used by growing multi product companies around the world. Stage-gate is simply a way to make product go/no-go decisions required for funding and functional alignment across an enterprise

The trick to success is to allow your State-Gate to be as flexible as possible enabling the process to serve the effort not the other way around. Much like software today is beginning to serve the user vs. the other way around historically, the Stage-Gate process needs to put people and the challenge ahead of the structure. Hmm, people over process that would be Agile. Yes think about the original Agile Manifesto and how that applied to NPDP.

Through this work we have come to value:
• Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
• Working software over comprehensive documentation
• Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
• Responding to change over following a plan

Agile is not just a development process.  Use the principles above applied to experimentation and leadership decision gates required for new product development; Short iterations, meaningful interactions, market collaboration, and willingness to change direction or earlier decisions. Create a flexible framework process for new or significant projects that tracks a transparent stream of information across the teams and through cycles along with evolving documents, and specific approvals or direction.

What if?

The core value proposition of a dynamic stage process is to support the cross functional awareness, decision inclusiveness and approval/redirect strengths of a Phase/Stage-Gate process without set predefined stage work. Enable the entire organization, across the business functions in a way that reflects their work flow and the scope of the effort, not the process.

Core to the problem with traditional Stage-Gate is similar to Waterfall development, too much work in a phase to review, test and approve effectively. The decision points get bogged down in multiple variables and politics over critical questions of strategy, alignment with goals and execution.

Dynamic Stage-Gate in Practice

Decisions over meetings
Traditional Stage-Gate focuses on the gate meeting. Early on the Product Manager meets one on one with decision makers and sells, trades, barters to any extent that gets them successfully through the event.

Clear concise information or direction is rare, the volume of info prohibits redirection. How often have you heard the old saying “never let the good be victim of the great”, this basically enforces mediocre output. What if you break it down and push for agreement on smaller details. Better data, better decisions! Meetings can be accomplished including discussions with a number of collaboration tools.

Clear Communication
The core of any large process is clear communication which requires inclusion and documentation. Yes inclusion so that others do not need to jump through hoops to catch up or deliver bad news after others waste cycles/resources. Documentation is accountability for what was agreed and action items at a core level but also allows others to review and understand the thoughts and concerns behind requirements.

Performance increases exponentially when anyone understands why requirements are as they are. Additionally this supports a culture where innovation happens from inspirational moments or applying other learning to the new work. Best practice is to support all collaboration on an item in a phase or at a gate in a collaboration tool that records interactions. Sidebar conversations happen so why not include those in the tool also, for example simple entry of spoke with ___ about ___ concern was ___ any other thoughts?

Process Management, rapid reiterations
Experience teaches that entropy happens! So if this is to be successful broadly across new product and large changes in existing portfolio SKUs it needs not only executive sponsorship but someone to own the process. Think of a Scrum master, a true dot connector across the enterprise and teams, someone to manage item definition closure and clarity of conversation. There is no room for he said she said communication or bench sitters not participating. Online collaboration can open the door for those who have more passive styles to throw a wrench in things late.

Also a process manager is a neutral third party who can propose without bias, summarize threaded conversations or initiate a vote that may not be popular such as cancel, stall or redirect. The main role though is gate definition and documentation. What, why and by when define a gate, each gate flows from the scope of questions going forward, quality of work performed and most importantly perception of risk.

Stage-Gate is a great tool for managing risk in any organization. This is its’ core function, to protect the company from runaway activity that wastes resources or could damage the brand.