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Are Your Innovation Project Leaders Drivers or Passengers?

Michelle Jones, Executive Vice President,
Stage-Gate International



If you have ever used the phrase “we need people that can drive new products to market” to express your performance expectations, you are not alone. Many executives use this word to describe their desired state of product innovation capability. What do we mean when we say we want people that can drive innovation? More importantly, as executives, what can we do to develop our project leaders so they can take the wheel?

The Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary offers numerous definitions of the word ‘drive’. All definitions – whether sports related, military, engineering or automotive – describe ‘drive’ as the act to push, propel and generate force to cause something to make progress or to make something move in a particular direction. Combine the qualitative descriptions of ‘drive’ with the proven characteristics of effective project leaders and this short-list effectively summarizes the type of project leader we seem to be searching for:

  • Highly motivated to ‘win in the marketplace’
  • Visionary value creator
  • Goal oriented
  • Proactive
  • Credible and well respected
  • Able to engage, align and motivate others
  • Balance of business acumen and technical skill

Note that no one function in particular makes the short-list. Effective project leadership is transferrable and can be found in any discipline including: R&D, Engineering, Marketing, Manufacturing, Operations, PMO, Program Management and Product Management.

For executives looking to discover and empower project leaders to drive new products to market, describing key characteristics is an important first step, but this alone is not enough to develop organizational capability. Consider at least three additional key enablers:

  1. Manage the Innovation Process Rigorously and Innovation Projects Lightly
    Executives – this is an important one – let go of the project and get more involved in the process. Top performing organizations have discovered that the best use of their executives’ time is in defining and leading their organization’s product innovation process. This singular set of instructions can immediately and positively impact numerous projects and project leaders and build lasting organizational capability. Simply put, an executive giving the same guidance project-by-project and leader-by-leader is not effective or fast enough to remain competitive in this day and age. Although our intentions are honorable, this approach is likely delaying projects as busy executives more often become bottlenecks.

    Rather, decide precisely when executives are needed to evaluate innovation projects, make Go/Kill decisions and allocate resources and then build these points of intervention directly into your product innovation process. Executives need not be involved in designing every last detail. The practices of successful product innovation performance are well researched and documented by NPD experts, Robert Cooper and Scott Edgett, and these should formulate much of your process design. Executives should focus their contribution on the subtle customization decisions and the design of the following key elements:
    • Gates (deciding the number and location of decision points in the process)
    • Gatekeepers (defining the accountable decision makers for each gate)
    • Gate Deliverables (defining the information and degree of accuracy needed at each gate to support Go/Kill decisions)
    • Evaluation Criteria (defining the criteria that will discriminate the best projects)
    • Red Flags (defining the specific circumstances when project leaders are expected to escalate their project status so Gatekeepers can intervene. Example: when a project’s forecasted NPV deteriorates by more than 5%)

    A robust Stage-Gate® process provides executives with visibility into product innovation via the gates. It also enables executives to manage by exception via red flags, thus providing us with the necessary assurances so we can effectively let go of individual projects in favor of getting more involved in the process. Most importantly, when executives design a robust process, it provides our drivers with a roadmap and the keys so they can take the wheel. It guides them through the value-added steps and activities used by successful new product projects before them. The process also warns them of the typical dangers and pitfalls to expect, thus enabling them to navigate more successfully.

  2. Match the Project Leader to the Innovation Project Type
    Product innovation projects come in all shapes, sizes and risk levels and therefore benefit from different levels and styles of project leadership and project management. Yes, there are subtle but very important differences between project leadership and project management and a time and place for both. It pays to distinguish the two.

    When you study thousands of innovation projects over the course of 25 years (as our company has done and continues to do), patterns emerge. One of the most effective ways to illustrate one of these patterns is by categorizing projects by their risk-level. Robert Cooper designed an easy-to-use risk matrix (see Figure 1) to help executives categorize and manage the types of product innovation projects their organizations typically embark upon. The risk of the project is assessed by the newness of the market/customer and by the newness of the technical solution (product or production). The newer the product to the company developing it, the higher the risk. Conversely, the more familiar the product to the company improving it, the lower the risk.

    The matrix was originally designed to help innovators determine when a project would benefit from entering into a full 5-Stage Process (due to high risk and uncertainty) or the lighter 3-Stage Process (due to lower risk and familiarity of the product and/or technology). An unexpected benefit of using the matrix was that it was also proving to be a useful tool to select the best project leader or project manager for the job. Once we recognize the type of innovation project we are dealing with, we are able to make better choices assigning a project leader with skills and experience to match the risk and needs of the project. Higher risk projects (high degree of uncertainty and newness) benefit more from project leadership. Whereas, lower risk projects (low degree of uncertainty and newness) benefit more from project management.

    Match project leaders to new product projects where the primary challenge is in developing a vision for a new product (one that does not exist today) and engaging, aligning and motivating a diverse group of stakeholders. Project leaders rely on both the Stage-Gate process and their business acumen to help sculpt and evolve a product that can win in the marketplace. Match project managers to product improvement projects where the primary challenge is modifying an existing product while honoring tight goals for scope, time (speed) and budget. Project managers rely on technical skills and techniques to execute with speed and efficiency to yield results with minimum variance. Note: large, technically-complex new product projects may benefit by having both a project leader and a project manager.

  3. Equip your Project Leaders and Project Managers with Training
    True, implementing a robust and well-documented Stage-Gate process is a powerful enabler for project leaders and project managers alike, to drive new products to market. However, only if your implementation properly orchestrates the critical timing of executives letting go at the precise time project leaders and project managers step up and take the wheel. Often, executives are quicker to make this shift. If executives let go before their project leaders step up – it causes a misalignment and results in frustration and failure. For a successful transition, project leaders and project managers should be afforded the opportunity to learn their new role and, yes, be trained for it. One executive confided in me, “I simply did not realize how important training would be primarily because I consider my core team of innovators and project managers very smart, quick-study professionals. My intentions were good. I in no way, shape or form thought I would be setting them up for failure by skipping the training”.

    Often times, formal training is used to meet multiple objectives including introducing the new knowledge or skill, acknowledging new performance expectations, team-building, alignment and, increasingly more popular of late, for the trainer to ‘role-model’ the behaviors, skills and leadership style you desire from the attendees throughout the training event. If you are short on internal talent and role models, simply arrange for an external, professional trainer.

    Consider a variety of training methods:

    • In-house Training Event for all would-be project leaders and project managers
    • Public Seminar or Conference when you have fewer than 4-5 leaders to train
    • Mentoring and Coaching (pair each would-be project leader with an executive who can provide mentoring and coaching on an as-needed basis)
    • Center of Excellence (facilitated and purposeful learning sessions with all project leaders contributing to the advancement and creation of a center of innovation project leadership excellence)
    • Role-models (pair new project leaders with veterans that serve as excellent role models)

    Consider these training topics:

    • How to use the product innovation process as a roadmap for new product success
    • Innovation project types and risk levels and how to scale the process accordingly
    • Key roles in the product innovation process and how project leaders should interface with each role
    • Distinguishing between the product innovation process and project management
    • Distinguishing between project leadership and project management

    In establishing an effective training program, you are essentially surrounding your project leaders and project managers with the right support structure, clear roles and expectations, a roadmap and, most importantly, the opportunity to internalize, practice and evolve. Training is critical to develop project leaders that can drive new products to market, successfully. If you do not properly support this transition, you will have more passengers than drivers.

After all, how many of us would give a new driver (regardless of age) the keys to our car without knowing they have successfully attended ‘Driver’s Ed’, can recite the ‘Rules-of-the-Road’, have been oriented to the mechanics of our make/model, have had a lot of practice with a seasoned driver and, yes, have even received some forgiveness along the way?

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.