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How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Using a Stage-Gate Process for Innovation

Are you struggling to get new products to market? You might need to re-evaluate your innovation process. This article explains some drawbacks of using the stage-gate process and we offer tips for mitigating the problem.

Woman thinking

If you have ever tried to work on an idea or create something new, you probably know that the innovation process isn't always straightforward and logical. 

Sometimes you have to go back to your original ideas. Other times, you have to jump several steps forward to test that your assumptions are correct. 

Because of the non-linear nature of innovation, some companies have found that a stage-gate process isn't always the optimal way to approach innovation and are instead exploring the idea of agile innovation. 

Does the stage-gate process have any shortcomings? Might it become a barrier to effective innovation? 

Let's start from the beginning.

What is the stage-gate process?

The stage-gate process is a system used to manage and develop new products or services. Typically, it involves a series of steps that guide a project from its inception to completion, ensuring that all stakeholders are informed throughout the process. 

Each stage is carefully managed to ensure the project's successful completion. The goal is to maximize innovation while minimizing risks associated with introducing a new product or service.

A typical Stage-Gate process includes the following steps:

  1. Idea Creation

  2. Testing

  3. Evaluation

  4. Development

  5. Commercialization

"But wait, aren't you describing an innovation pipeline?" you might ask. And that's an excellent question (even though we just asked it ourselves).

Need a refresher on an innovation pipeline? This article explains it all.

Think of the innovation pipeline as the building blocks (or pipes, for that matter) that make up your final product. But the stage-gate process is the building plan. The blocks (or pipeline stages) wouldn’t change names (i.e. they’d still be idea secretion, evaluation, etc.), but the way you manage each of those blocks would depend on your building plan (i.e., the approach you take - for example, the stage-gate approach).

So, the stage-gate process basically helps you build and manage the innovation pipeline.

Why might the stage-gate process slow down innovation?

Reason #1: It could be time-consuming

The stage-gate process consists of multiple steps which typically require approval before moving forward. Each stage requires extensive testing and feedback from stakeholders to ensure that the product or service meets the needs of customers and other stakeholders. 

While it's great that everyone touches base at every step of the process, this extensive process can take up valuable time. In a world like today, when things change almost every day, you can’t lose time to stay ahead of the game. Just remember how ChatGPT basically revolutionized everything in a matter of days. So, I mean, you want to be thorough with your plans, but without having to lose the momentum. 

Reason #2: It can be bureaucratic  

Because most stakeholders have to submit their feedback at every stage, the sign-off process might become belaboured and ineffective.

What if someone doesn't agree with the ideas that are chosen to go to the next stage? What if someone thinks the original goal needs to change? What if someone just isn't present at the moment and there aren't any qualified people to approve something? Basically, what we're trying to say is that depending on your organization, the stage-gate process can create unnecessary bureaucracy.

Reason #3: It thinks of innovation as a linear process

Innovation isn’t a straight path. Sometimes you’d think that your idea is finished, but then realize that there are some small details that could be adjusted - the color, the shape, the message.

Imagine that you’re developing new menu items for a quick-serve restaurant (QSR). Your project team already chose a few menu item ideas in the idea generation stage and is going into optimization. But then, suddenly, one team member proposes that there is a new flavor trend in the QSR space that should be included in the new menu. 

Well, a traditional stage-gate process isn’t flexible enough for rapid changes. If stakeholders already signed off on something, adding another menu item would create delays and extra costs because everyone now needs to go back a step. 

And so, the team member's idea could be ignored or put on a shelf for the time being. And what if that idea could have been the next Pumpkin Spice Latte? gasp

You see? Innovation can be messy, disjointed and incoherent. The stage-gate approach isn’t nimble enough to accommodate the innovation process. 

So how can you mitigate these pitfalls?

That's where we talk about the agile innovation approach

Quick recap. The agile approach came to us from the world of tech. Since things tend to change in that realm literally every second, the agile approach is all about releasing a minimally viable product (MVP) to collect consumer feedback as early as possible. 

Agile means that you iteratively adapt your product based on that consumer feedback. You can adapt tiny elements of your product, but together they work to improve the whole thing. 

Here’s why the agile approach can help you avoid the pitfalls of the stage-gate approach

Group of people coming up with an idea

1. It gives you room for exploration, iteration and play. 

The agile approach is more nimble than the stage-gate process because it’s nimble. It likes to break down innovation into smaller pieces so that teams can explore different ideas, iterate experiments and play around with every piece simultaneously. 

So, instead of having to go through every stage of the innovation pipeline and getting sign-offs on every decision, teams can take their time testing smaller elements of the product. 

For example, if your innovation project is to develop a new protein bar, each team can take little elements and explore them how they want. 

One team would experiment with flavors, another with the packaging, and another with the prices or positioning. They are encouraged to repeat their tests as many times as they need and play with different positionings, names, visuals, etc.

2. It fits the nature of today’s changing world

The benefit of the agile approach is that it was built with the realities of today’s changing world in mind. It knows that once you start building a product as a whole, it immediately starts to become out of date, so you need to start working on refreshing it. 

Of course, we should note that you can’t always be on top of all the emerging ideas. At one point or another, the innovation process moves forward and ideas that are becoming trendy at the point where you move forward will not be included. 

But that’s why the whole process of iteration and play is so useful. You can explore some further-out ideas and some closer-in, less radical ideas, and see what rises to the top. And those experiments can help you find something in the middle that’s both up-to-date and actually viable.

3. It could actually power up your stage-gate process

Don’t get confused; the stage-gate process isn’t all that bad - many big companies still use it a lot. But we think it could be zhuzhed up if it takes some inspiration from the agile process.

Since the agile approach allows you to break down your ideas, you can always test different stuff simultaneously. For example, you could explore flavours separately from packaging design and positioning and then bring together your strongest ideas to create a winning whole.

That's one of the ways to make stage-gate more effective. If you want to merge the two approaches, you can include some exploration in the development stage before ideas are in the formal stage-gate process. Basically testing the waters before you plunge fully into the innovation pool.

At Upsiide, we really believe that the element of “play” that the agile approach brings is important. Through inexpensive, fast research, it is possible to iterate towards stronger ideas that can succeed in a stage-gate process. And you can cut weaker ideas before investing fully in a stage-gate process.

In conclusion…

It’s really up to you how you choose to develop an innovation. And if an agile approach is your way to go, great choice! We actually have a really useful article about the 3 pillars of agile research. Click below to learn more.