Stage-Gate(r) Thinking Has Arthritis…

…It hurts when you have to move fast.

In fact, this may be the reason why product innovation at big companies has declined steadily for the last few decades:  Traditional “best” practices are making innovation hurt.

Healthy, but not too fast

Healthy, but not too fast

How and when did this happen?  Well, back in the day, Stage-Gate(r) processes were developed to eliminate product development waste.  In those days, mid-project changes caused by poor planning were a major source of waste.  Without staging development tasks properly and without freezing requirements, developers would have to scrap design effort and loop back to repeat work they already thought was done.  Budgets soared and schedules slipped.

But then the ossification began.  In many companies, mid-project changes came to always be attributed to poor planning or sloppy execution: If the schedule slipped, plan the next project in more detail; if the project scope changed, enforce frozen requirements more rigidly.

In many companies today, Stage-Gate(r) thinking has ossified into “plan your work and work your plan,” and all mid-project change is tarred with the brush of waste.  This hobbles innovation.

By definition, innovation involves uncertainty and unknowns. The planning called for by Stage-Gate(r) thinking does not eliminate uncertainty, but merely papers it over.

The fallacy that a perfect plan eliminates uncertainty actually exacerbates the cost of change. When an early uncertainty surfaces later to require a change, the design will have internal dependencies that make the change propagate deep into the product, all requiring rework and re-testing.

Flexible Product Development provides fresh thinking that challenges Stage-
Gate(r) by taking a different view of mid-project change.  In innovative, turbulent markets, change is necessary not wasteful.  Rather than trying to plan uncertainty out, you identify major unknowns and take steps to resolve them before they threaten serious project disruption.  In the mean time, you design the product architecture and project structure to minimize the cost of mid-project changes.

To learn more about Flexible Product Development, see my white paper, or the Flexible Product Development web site.

(Stage-Gate is a registered trademark of Product Development Institute)

One Response to “Stage-Gate(r) Thinking Has Arthritis…”

  1. I spend a lot of energy railing against Stage-Gate(r) processes because it is so deeply ingrained in management thinking that no one seems to question it. In fact, it’s good in some cases, but counter-productive in others.

    What’s your experience with Stage-Gate(r)? Have you seen applications where it works well? Where it only gets in your way?