Preston Smith's Corner

Should we be using a stages-and-gates product development process?

September 2001 Quick Tip

If you are using a development process with stages and gates, you are in the mainstream: the majority of companies develop their products using such processes, according to authoritative sources.

Gated processes have a couple of attractive advantages:

  • They allow management to monitor progress easily and ensure compliance with objectives.
  • They facilitate scaling up investments in the project as information becomes better, thus conserving development funds.

I believe that gated processes are popular because they save management’s time and fit well with the cost-cutting directives under which many managers operate.

However, these processes are weak in other areas, which is not widely appreciated. First, the gates introduce hurdles that essentially slow the process down in several ways. Advocates of gated processes have introduced concepts such as “fuzzy gates” to deal with this, but the essential delays remain.

Second, using stages suggests that development proceeds sequentially, which is a slow way to reach market. Recent research at MIT has shown that iteration is essential to innovation, so sequential processes are fundamentally at odds with innovation.

Third, the gates suggest a primary emphasis on conserving funds. Our analyses of many projects suggest that, most often, development expense is less important than time to market, product cost, or product performance. If this holds for your project, a gated process may be focusing on your least important development objective.

Consequently, whether or not you should be using such processes depends on what you want to achieve. See our article about focusing on profit for more on project objectives. Also, see the additional information on the pros and cons of gated processes.

(c) Copyright 2013 Preston G. Smith. All Rights Reserved.

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