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The Important Role of New Product Development Process Manager

Michelle Jones, Executive Vice President,
Stage-Gate International


There are two ways to win at product innovation. First, select the right projects to invest in and probably more important, learn to eliminate poor projects sooner. The second way to win is to execute projects the right way. Right Projects Right. To be truly effective at the latter you need process, people and technology working together like a well-oiled new products machine. Enter the all-important and often under- utilized New Product Development Process Manager.

When new product development expert Robert Cooper first introduced the best practice of a Process Manager role (to become the driver/mechanic of this well-oiled machine), he often described the role as 's/he who shepherds the process along'. According to Wikipedia, a shepherd's job is to supervise the migration of the 'flock/herd' and ensure they make it to market as quickly as possible. We were impressed with how well this definition summed up this critical role. Now, replace compliant herds with bold senior executives, inventors and numerous cross functional experts and life suddenly gets much more interesting.

Five Important Roles Played by the Process Manager
Adapted from SG Navigator™

  1. NPD Process Expert
    High quality idea-to-launch and portfolio management processes are the number one determinant of new product success. Every organization that has a business strategy which relies upon successful new products should have these robust processes in place. The process manager becomes the internal NPD process expert. S/He stays on top of process and performance benchmarks and new best practices that surface in the marketplace. They garner expertise internally as well. They conduct post-launch-reviews for the purpose of spotting new practices that work and discern patterns around what doesn’t. Their expertise guides the day-to-day application of the process as well as its evolution.
  2. Educator
    Successful product innovation is a cross-functional team sport involving a variety of levels of people within an organization from senior executives to project leaders and team members. A high quality process alone isn’t enough. The players must understand the role they are to play and how to execute it in a high quality manner.
    The process manager becomes the ‘team coach’. They deliver consistent, high quality training to all of the roles involved, including providing performance feedback. Their educator role should range from formal trainer at organized events to the casual coach who successfully drops hints and tips with ideal timing.

  3. Scorekeeper
    Top performing companies keep score. They know if they are winning or losing the new products game and they adjust their actions and behaviors accordingly. The process manager becomes the scorekeeper. S/He tracks and measures few but meaningful metrics that are designed to convey the health of individual projects, processes they flow through and the complete set (or portfolio) of projects. Given their intimate understanding of performance they are often relied upon by executive innovation champions to provide briefings and to explain variances.
  4. Facilitator
    “As goes the gates, so goes the process” is a phrase made popular by Robert Cooper. Quite simply put, the better you perform at the gates, the better you perform in the new products game. This single practice so strongly correlates with new product success that many top performing companies rely upon the process manager role to facilitate gate meetings. The gatekeepers essentially succumb to a disciplined approach to decision making guided consistently by the process manager. The facilitation role, when expertly implemented, solicits quality contributions from the gatekeepers resulting in rich discussion which ultimately leads to better product strategies and decisions.

  5. Interpreter
    Accurate and timely communication is ‘table-stakes’ when it comes to accelerating new product development. Almost every failed project has traces of poor communication. The process manager becomes the bridge between gatekeepers and teams and often between the various functions themselves until a truly common language of understanding is achieved within the organization. The process manager ‘raises the bar’ through their process requirements (e.g. requiring project plans, scorecards and records of decisions), their actions (e.g. through questioning techniques when facilitating gates and by using frameworks and tools to guide integrated team discussions) as well as the actions of the senior executives within the company (e.g. scheduling executives to speak about NPD at meetings, asking one gatekeeper to repeat all decisions back to the team during a gate meeting).

As Robert Cooper so often charges ‘No process ever implemented itself’. The Process Manager is one of the most important roles for ensuring a successful implementation of critical NPD processes. If you have a Process Manager role defined today, re-examine their role to ensure they are fully utilized. If you don’t have a Process Manager role defined today, consider your new product performance and whether such a role could help your organization improve.

About Stage-Gate International

Stage-Gate International’s highly knowledgeable and experienced team of advisors have guided hundreds of organizations to successfully implement a best-practice Stage-Gate Idea-to-Launch process in as little as 4-8 weeks. We accelerate time-to-benefit with an extremely attractive return on investment by:

  • Crafting a balanced Idea-to-Launch Process Solution of expertise, advice, facilitation and best practices that fits your company’s situation, sense of urgency, and budget.
  • Collaborating with you so that your Idea-to-Launch process is implemented rapidly and your organization is equipped to ‘own’ and manage the process as quickly as possible.
  • Leveraging our market-leading accelerators, Benchmarker™ and SG Navigator™, to not only deliver all of the foundational elements straightaway, and ‘clear the path’ for rapid achievement of a  best-practice Idea-to-Launch process.

Michelle Jones

Michelle JonesMichelle Jones is the Executive Vice President and Chief R&D Officer of Stage-Gate® International (SGI) and is a speaker, author and consultant on the topic of product innovation. She leads the commercialization of some of the world’s best practice research on product innovation into products and services for companies striving to achieve innovation excellence. Her portfolio includes strategic partnerships, product management and marketing and R&D.

Michelle has worked with an impressive portfolio of companies and has over 20 years of experience across several industries including Aerospace, Automotive, Chemical, Consumer Packaged Goods, Defense, Electronics, Energy, Food, Financial, Medical and Pharmaceutical. She has led numerous large-scale and complex engagements for product innovation programs, spanning from Discovery and Stage-Gate Models to Strategic Portfolio Management, to success.