Senior Managements have much to offer when it comes to innovating new products, services, and technologies yet, more often than not, they are under-leveraged or their role is ill-defined. Our firm has been studying, benchmarking, and quantifying the role of management in innovation for more than 30 years now. The evidence is clear. Companies that engage and leverage their senior leaders in very specific ways outperform their counterparts in sustained new product sales and profitability by more than 2.5 times, with top performers crushing it with 4 times better performance.
The model we developed to operationalize this groundbreaking body of research is called the Stage-Gate® Innovation Performance Framework and at the very heart of it is the “Gate” and something we call “Gatekeeping”. Gates represent unique Go/Kill decision points placed at strategically important investments throughout the new product’s development lifecycle. They call for business acumen & funding (dollars & resources) that is typical of the cross-functional senior management team. Gatekeeping represents the high-performance role that is modeled by the senior management team in order to realize its innovation agenda, which can be interpreted to be at odds with operational excellence goals at times (see my blog on innovation conflict). Gatekeeping is experienced by all involved in innovation, by design, as their projects pass through Gates so they can benefit by observing their leaders managing this inherent conflict. The culture-impacting aspect of the Gates is critical, especially for organizations that are transforming their company through a portfolio of new products, services, and technologies. Without this consistent demonstration of ambidextrous leadership, pockets of confusion and conflict can appear, and the ensuing debates can shift focus and energy away from priorities.
Why do companies struggle to achieve authentic Gates? In my 25+ years of designing and implementing R&D and NPD organizations and their supporting governance processes, I have seen companies choose to over-engineer all other aspects of their innovation process for small performance gains long before tackling the higher impact Gates. Why? The list is long but initiative sponsors cite feeling pressure to achieve quick hits over high impact, reluctance & lack of knowledge to tinker with roles that are above their pay grade, the intimidation of facilitating a full cross-functional management team, and finally, the sense that management is implementing Stage-Gate to improve how the various project teams perform, not how the governance team performs. I typically see one of two extremes in place:
- Management is too far removed. In these companies, the extent of senior management involvement with innovation occurs during the annual budgeting process to approve funding to initiate and execute specific programs/projects, optional attendance at sprint standups to view prototypes, and a meeting shortly before completion or launch. Note: all three of these examples of leader engagement offer low impact on performance.
- Management micromanages innovation. In these companies, the extent of leadership involvement and influence over projects is very hands-on. Senior managers cite their heavy involvement as a necessity for a variety of reasons, but namely for the team’s lack of experience or a roadmap to guide them successfully from idea to launch and the strategic importance of the program/project. While these are important reasons to engage senior managers, micromanaging is not the answer and does more damage than good. Their engagement is inconsistent as it is subject to their unpredictable and demanding schedules, offers gut-feel contributions versus objective, market-based data, and lacks cross-functional perspective and customer empathy because most perceive that the senior manager knows what s/he is doing. These types of projects often earn nicknames, like ‘pet project’.
The answer lies somewhere in between the two extremes requiring a thoughtful design with inputs from the senior management team (or teams if you have multiple portfolios or business units). The effectiveness of management engagement in the gated process is one of the most commonly cited reasons why Stage-Gate® has endured as the innovation management framework of choice by top-performing businesses despite the more frequent swap-outs of techniques used by each Function contributing to innovation such as: Agile/Scrum/Kanban methods for project & team management over traditional methods like Waterfall; Design Thinking and Digital Customer Experience Journey data for voice-of-customer over traditional methods like House of Quality; and 3D Printing over traditional prototyping modeling, etc.
The term ‘Gate’ was introduced by our co-founder Dr. Robert G. Cooper when he coined the term Stage-Gate to mark the introduction of this novel approach for companies to innovate new products, services & technologies for market introduction with improved success. The Gates describe the unique “options approach” to decision-making that is effective to counter the uncertainty and risk involved in funding new innovations. The Gates are where cross-functional business leaders perform their role to accelerate time to profit & ROI, align organizational readiness, and advance strategic impact. The Stages describe the unique, incremental approach to execution that is needed to enable cross-functional teams to perform value-adding activities that iteratively shape and craft the winning innovation and its value proposition. Both teams have their unique roles to perform separately, yes, but they come together at each Gate to share in the risk, align on priorities and maximize the potential of each innovation for the benefit of the company, its stakeholders, and its customers. Great Gatekeeping should never feel like an US versus THEM contest.
What does high-impact Gatekeeping look like? True to its design motto of simplicity (less is more), the Gate structure in Stage-Gate is elegantly uncomplicated and persistently consistent. Gatekeeping however is more comprehensive than most realize. It involves a set of behaviors and practices that enforce a relentless focus on realizing strategy; making fair and courageous Go/Kill decisions, allocating and reallocating resources; applying transparency, being a servant leader that empowers and inspires teams, communicating continually and with crispness; and setting high expectations for quality, discipline, and accountability. This infographic describes high-performance Gatekeeping in action.
- Gates serve as the business leaders’ platform for surfacing, acknowledging, and accelerating profitable revenue through new products. Systematically realizing new top-line growth requires the consistency and discipline that is embodied in an authentic Gated process.
- Gatekeepers are present, prepared, engaged, and focused during Gate meetings affording the most efficient and effective experience for all involved. Gate meetings exchange quality information and decisions very quickly and this, in part, reflects the tone and expectation for what the innovation culture (should) look like in their company.
- Gatekeepers are informed by the team’s concise deliverables which offer fact-based information, and objective assumptions specific to the role of the Gatekeeper which is to confirm value, strategic alignment, risk and whether continued investment/funding is warranted. Rookie mistake – preparing deliverables that explain/justify what the team has been spending their time on.
- Fairly judge each program/project for merit using transparent success criteria. Gatekeepers describe what a great innovation opportunity looks like by way of the criteria they choose. An authentic Gate uses proven Likelihood of Success criteria in a scorecard format making it easy to visualize the success target & assess how each project compares to the target. Low scores reveal project weaknesses and high variances among Gatekeeper scores reveal the need for better information.
- Gatekeepers listen to each other and to the diverse perspectives brought forward by the team. They remain open-minded to new information, learn and focus on what is important to the market (which can be different from their own opinions) and they align with one another to do what is best for the company.
- Gatekeepers make timely, Go/Kill decisions. Every Gate is an opportunity to accelerate innovation. What starts as a promising project could deteriorate and vice versa. When conditions (internal or external in the market) are changing rapidly, it is important to spot the projects that are/will deteriorate as a result, kill them and reallocate those resources to more promising programs/projects. Teams are good at spotting changing conditions, but they are not as quick as Gatekeepers are to appreciate the strategic impact and implications.
- Align on the project’s priority. With a Likelihood of Success score in hand, it’s much easier to establish the project’s priority relative to the other projects competing for the same resources This is important because Gatekeeping is all about giving the NPD organization FOCUS. Too many companies are spread too thinly across too many programs/projects and nothing gets done well. Aligning on and communicating top priorities, which means Kill/Hold decisions, creates a culture focused on winning.
- Align on the next Stage action plan and its price. Gatekeeping is almost entirely about being forward-looking versus examining a project’s past. Therefore, good Gatekeeping treats a Go decision as an exercise in procurement. Gatekeepers will know how much the next Stage will cost (in $ and resources) and they will know what they will get for their money (new information, experiment results, new prototype, etc.).
- Emphasize activities that add value and de-risk. Gatekeeping is also about keeping the team focused on what matters most – winning in the market. Gatekeepers emphasize value-adding activities that can shore up any project weaknesses detected by the Scorecard. They also stop bureaucracy from creeping into plans.
- Emphasizes information needed for alignment. Gatekeepers also prioritize next Stage plan activities that aim to provide information to help close gaps in alignment detected by the Scorecard.
- Ensures project resources match potential rewards. Gatekeeping provides a reality check for most teams and their projects. If the scope and costs are increasing and the potential reward is not, Gatekeepers assess if it is in the best interest of the company to continue with the investment. If the project must continue, they steer it to get it back on the right track.
- Gatekeepers offer their wisdom, guidance & encouragement to the team. During a Gate Meeting, if any Gatekeeper feels they can improve the team’s next Stage plan, they share their wisdom BEFORE not AFTER its execution. Gatekeeping is servant leadership and looks for ways to help its teams succeed. This includes killing projects that should be stopped and explaining the reasons to the team. Every Gate meeting is an opportunity for the team to learn from the company’s top managers.
- Are clear about their expectations for the next Gate. Gatekeeping operates on the principle to “manage by exception”. Once a program/project leaves a Gate, the team self-manages until the next Gate. This affords the team the flexibility and empowerment they need to get their job done, free of meddling. It is also a wise use of the Gatekeeper’s time as they won’t see that project again until it is ready for its next Gate and, by definition, its next significant investment (unless something goes wrong & the team raises a flag for help). What creates this trust is the clarity with which both the Gatekeepers and the Team understand what is promised to be delivered for the money and the resources provided to the team. In short, it’s about enforcing accountability.
- Contribute expertise as a functional leader. The ideal Gatekeeping Team is multi-functional and is comprised of the leader of each Function. They own resources and expertise needed to contribute to the new innovation program/project. Their first obligation to the company is to develop capability excellence in their specific Function so they can make a positive impact on the project. At each Gate, they can assure their peers that the work performed under their Function is of the highest quality.
- Behave as an experienced cross-functional team player. Gatekeeping is not just about getting your Go/Kill vote on projects. It is about functioning as a high-performing team that works together for a purpose, to achieve goals that are bigger than representing your Function and holding each other accountable. This means there may be times when all but one Gatekeeper sees the potential in a program/project and instead of ignoring his/her concerns, the team openly discusses them & addresses their needs to reach alignment. It means the Gatekeepers stand united in their decisions and they back it up by ensuring that the resource commitments they made are honored as promised.
- Make and support decisions that are best for the BU/Company. The only reason a company should pursue an innovation portfolio is because it is strategically important to do so. The Stage-Gate process is tailored to match the types of innovations your strategy needs to execute (e.g. new technologies, new products, and line extensions, etc.). Finally, Gatekeeping is about overseeing the execution of the innovation strategy by contributing to program/project evolution through the Gates. If you are unhappy with the execution of your innovation strategy, its impact or speed or return on investment, look no further than the design of your Gates. “As go the Gates, so goes the Process”, Dr. Robert Cooper fondly reminds us.
Do you see a similar situation within your own organization? Are you looking to implement next-generation Gates with Teeth? Or integrate your Stages more tightly with your Gates? Give us a call, we are here to help. You can reach Michelle at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our website www.stage-gate.com.
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