Rethinking the Innovation Process

The traditional product development stage-gate process works great when you’re building solutions similar to those you’ve built in the past. But when you’re building new and different things — and there’s a lot of uncertainty — following such a process isn’t the best approach. Here are a few reasons why:

1. There’s no “one-size-fits-all” opportunity, so there shouldn’t be a “one-size-fits-all” process. Some innovation initiatives need to navigate a lot more uncertainty than others. Some innovation teams can move much faster than others. Sometimes, the first critical assumption to test isn’t in Stage 1. The optimal process doesn’t force very different initiatives with very different derisking requirements down the same path.

2. The innovation process is never linear, so why do innovation stage-gate processes always go from “left to right”? What if you’re late in the stage-gate process and you learn something that suggests a needed reframing of the core customer problem-to-solve? You likely should restart some of the insight work you may have completed a few stages earlier. Most stage-gate processes don’t allow for that. The optimal process should.

3. Gate review meetings are a waste of time. Before such meetings, teams frequently set gate review criteria (rather than “What’s best for the initiative”) as their “North Star”. And then they spend valuable hours preparing for meetings that lead to opaque, post-meeting decisions. The optimal process leverages ongoing, lightweight “pulse checks” (instead of meetings) to monitor if “confidence in critical assumptions proving true” (instead of precise forecasts) is increasing or decreasing.

4. The most important “key” stakeholders are rarely involved. There are often leaders and teams outside of “Innovation” whose buy-in is crucial to success. Yet stage-gate processes rarely consider “Will they stop-something-else-so-they-can-do-this-with-us?” risk. And many initiatives fail solely because that answer turns out to be emphatically “No!”. The optimal process requires teams to assess the potential for such buy-in from the beginning and ensures that building such clarity is an ongoing priority.

If you have the opportunity to recraft your innovation process, apply human-centered design principles to do things like “empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test” the thought-starters above to figure out what’s best for your organization. And, if you can’t easily “rip-and-replace” your existing process (most innovation leaders can’t), consider starting with #3 and #4 since progress on both may open eyes to why working on #1 and #2 should follow.