The One Best Way (Part 5): Gates

Are gates the best way to manage product development?

Establishing “gates” through which projects must pass if they are to be pursued is a common practice in product development organizations. I actually like “gating”, for it provides structure as well as an intellectual framework around the investment of scarce developmental resources. Naturally there are consultants with magical systems of gating. Google it.

One of my favorite gates was shown to me by my father.

Back in the 1970’s when I was in college, an acquaintance suggested that someone ought to put in-store product advertisements in shopping carts. The moment I heard the idea I was ready to run with it. I called my father for advice – for which he gave me these two chestnuts:

1. Don’t worry that it was not my idea to begin with. Most ideas die on the vine, and whoever commercializes an idea has the chance to succeed. He added (not without a trace of sarcasm) that in a couple of days I would believe the idea was mine anyway.

2. Was I the logical entity to run with this? There was nothing patentable or protectable about the idea. Any supermarket, ad agency, shopping cart manufacturer, etc. would eat me alive once the idea was put into practice.

Thirty years later, during a conversation with the VP of R&D at a major U.S. company, he stated that his program was based on gating, and the most important gate was whether his firm was the best positioned to pursue a particular development. Brilliant man.

Methodology Gives Those With No Ideas Something to Do

The title above was taken from Mason Cooley’s “City Aphorisms”. You have got to love it.

In brief – here is how large corporations approach product development. It begins with idea generation. This is the brain storming – the hard-to-define process aptly called “The Fuzzy Front End”. While there are scholarly works dedicated to just this portion of new product development, this is probably the least well-understood part of the process.

Ideas that successfully exit the “front end” will then go through a series of stage/gates before finally being commercialized as a new product. These stages are relatively easy to define and are usually well-understood by the host company.

As much has been written about The Fuzzy Front End as well as Stage/Gate, I recommend other sources for a more detailed explanation.

Despite the existence of this conceptual framework, companies have a very difficult time innovating successfully.

This blog will explore why this is and what can be done about it.