In the sixth post from our seven-part Stage Gate series, we examine how to effectively implement a Stage Gate process and explore the keys to success.
Stage Gate is not a one size fits all. The core principles of a stage gate or phase gate process are quite simple, but to make it really work well in practice is quite hard and requires a process that is carefully matched to the business environment and culture. It is vital to give proper attention to the subtleties of how the process will actually work – and that means how will it serve as a tool to select the best projects, reject the less-good ones, and provide the right level of support, encouragement and direction for managers in the organisation.
There is a world of difference between a ‘tunnel’ type of process – that merely serves to categorise projects into stages – and a true ‘funnel’ type of process – that concentrates focus in an objective way to the best ideas and how to accelerate them.
In this series of blog posts, we have highlighted several areas and types of criteria that should be considered. The actual process that you implement in your organisation must however be carefully tailored to suit the type of projects you are doing, the type of market you serve, and the organisation culture of how you operate.
Whatever gate criteria you choose to adopt, the choice should be objective, clearly defined, well communicated and accepted as relevant. If the gate criteria or deliverables are perceived as being bureaucratic, cumbersome or not relevant in some way, then they will not be effectively performed.
To ensure uptake and adoption of a key process requires involving the right people in its design, and implementation. This becomes especially important when developing or improving a process that is shared across several business units in an organisation.
Pilot and Refine the Process
When you move from the design phase to the implementation phase of adopting stage gate, it is best to try it out with a few projects that make up a representative sample. It also makes sense initially to keep the first usage among a supportive community – this creates the opportunity to refine within a constructive team. Progressively, then expand usage. It’s important to keep testing and refining until you have tweaked the process, and the terminology, to suit the needs of the rest of the organisation.
Get buy in from stakeholders
Involvement of key stakeholders early on is vital. Stakeholders cover a broad spectrum – project managers, gatekeepers, business unit heads, marketing department and research/innovation functional leads. Also, be sure to get involvement and buy in from the full range of business units that you wish to roll out the process to. At all costs, aim to avoid the “not invented here” syndrome.
Involve and Educate Gatekeepers
Get them involved early on. They will be key in the success or failure of the approach. It’s also vital to ensure that the right people/roles are included as gatekeepers. This calls on looking closely at the organisation structure, and where the right people are that must be engaged at each stage / gate in the process. This needs to be done for all of the major cross functional aspects that need to touched on – finance, marketing, technology, legal/regulatory, business units, sales functions etc.
Manage expectations, anxieties and perceptions
Frequently, a new process can invoke an initial reaction against change. Anything that disrupts the status quo can provoke a reaction, and the reality is that there will be supporters and opponents. The human side of this is critical. Individual people can have anxieties or opposition because of how they perceive something will affect their ability to do their job, or their status or power. Sometimes, these concerns have a genuine basis, other times it is simply misunderstanding. It is vital to ensure proper management of change.
Gate review meeting management
There are several aspects to consider here. Firstly, how the gate review meetings should be organised – in person, virtual/on-line, remotely. The right balance will depend on your organisation and how you do things, as well as geography and availability of gatekeepers. However you do it, be sure that the reviews involve proper discussion, and don’t just become a box-ticking exercise. Secondly, what will be the actual mechanism of making a decision? If there are different views among gatekeepers, then what will you do? Typically, this is something that should be built into your gate criteria – for example, whether it is required that all gate reviewers approve for a project to proceed, or a majority, or some other rule. This is about defining your rules of governance. Thirdly, there is good old-fashioned meeting management. Gate review meetings can get quite involved, and there can be a lot of detail sometimes, so ensuring proper communication, preparation, time-management and all such things is vital.
Encourage an open and challenging culture
For a stage gate process to work well, it is necessary to encourage objectivity, realism and the open-ness to discuss issues that may well invoke opposing views. Encourage behaviour and a culture that supports this.
Support and leadership
Right from the start, you need the right support and leadership to make it work. If a new process, whatever it is, is perceived as lacking in real leadership support, then it’s likely to be dismissed. Be sure to have in place clear direction, and sponsorship, that demonstrates that you are taking the adoption of stage gate seriously, and that it’s not just another flavour of the month process.
Tools and Automation
We deliberately put this point near to the of the list, because it’s important to focus on all the fundamentals before jumping to the latest software tools and automation techniques. Why? Simply because the business and process needs should determine what sort of tools or automation you require. Having said that, the latest breed of stage gate software tools will make the whole process so much more sustainable, and really do offer a massive transformational benefit in terms of effectiveness.
The right tools, properly implemented, will bring the process to life and help you to make it an intrinsic aspect of how business is done. Be careful of simple, fast fix solutions. As an initial step, it’s a good move to do all your piloting with general office type software – word, excel etc – and then when you have piloted the process successfully look at more integrated solutions, and tailor them to your specific needs.
Once you have a process in place, you should be refining it over time. Progressively improving and tuning the process, to maintain relevance. There is also an aspect of the ‘maturity curve’, which is a measure of how much sophistication the organisation can and should adopt. As your organisation gains experience, you will move up the maturity curve, and can strive for more sophistication in the process, and bigger benefits.
The range of software tools to support stage gate is extensive. In our next blog post, we help guide you through the maze of options and suggest three broad areas or types of tool that you may wish to consider.
In our following blog post we will be taking a closer look at Stage Gate software.