A Beginner’s Guide to the Stage-Gate Process

It takes a lot to turn an idea into a product and launch it. Learn how the stage-gate process can keep you from making mistakes with your product development or project management.

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Updated January 4, 2021

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It takes a lot to come up with an idea, turn it into a product, and launch it. And you have to wonder how some products ever get to market, including a product from the purified-water brand Evian. Believe it or not, it created a water bra. The idea was to provide a cooler alternative to traditional bras during the hot summer months. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work out so well.

Don’t you wonder sometimes how these products get to market? And Evian is not alone; the business world is full of examples of questionable launches.

  • Bristol-Myers Squibb sold Touch of Yogurt shampoo, which some customers decided to eat.
  • Lululemon launched a form-fitting line of yoga pants that became almost see-through when users stretched.
  • The Fitbit Force fitness tracker caused skin irritation, including blisters for some users that needed medical attention.
  • Bic tried to sell disposable underwear.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Somehow these products made it through the product development phase and into the marketplace. We have to believe they missed some key steps in the process somewhere along the way.

So, how do these expensive mistakes happen? Companies get invested in ideas. Once they’ve allocated the resources, it can be difficult to stop. The more time and effort that goes into a bad idea, the harder it gets to shut it down.

You have to believe if they had used stage gating for their product development process, they might have caught critical errors before taking these products to market. Stage gating is one of the most effective project management techniques for product development.


Overview: What is the stage-gate process?

Created and trademarked by Bob Cooper, the stage-gate process is a strategic approach to innovation and product development. Also called the phase-gate process or waterfall methodology, it divides projects into different stages. Each stage contains a “gate” that prevents you from moving to the next phase until you clear it.

At each gate, you have to decide whether you have completed the steps in the current phase that allow you to move forward. One of these four decisions must be made:

  1. Go: The project is ready to move to the next phase.
  2. Kill: There is no reason to invest more time, so let’s shut it down.
  3. Hold: The project is viable, but not ready to move to the next stage.
  4. Recycle: We can develop this project further if we make some changes in scope.

Stage gating works best for product development, product improvements, or process changes.


4 benefits of stage gating

The stage-gate approach breaks down large goals into manageable stages. You must complete each phase before any additional resources are applied to the next stage. By doing so, you can focus more clearly on meeting goals, prevent wasting time on projects, enforce discipline, and prevent errors.

1. Focuses on meeting goals at each stage

Until you clear the gate — by completing the goals at each stage — you can’t progress. This keeps teams focused on meeting deliverables.

2. Prevents wasting time on projects

The stage-gate process for new product development includes multiple decision points throughout. It makes it easier to assess a project’s viability.

3. Forces discipline

Stage-gating project management introduces discipline in what can otherwise be a chaotic development process. Teams know clearly what they need to do and accomplish to move projects forward.

4. Prevents errors

Stage-gate models tend to prevent errors. A step-by-step approach ensures that you don’t miss critical steps in the process.


How to use the stage-gate process for project management

Each project phase of the stage-gate product development process follows the same basic structure.

Stages

  • Activities: The work that must be done to fulfill the project plan
  • Analysis: The results of the functional activities
  • Deliverables: The presentation of the results for submission to the gate

Gates

  • Deliverables: A menu of deliverables defined for each gate
  • Criteria: Established criteria for judging deliverables, typically scored
  • Output: A review of the results, including a go/kill/hold/recycle decision and agreement on the next phase of the plan (dates and deliverables for the ensuing gates)

Some teams will separate members in stages from the gatekeepers for an independent assessment. Others will use a team approach to clear gates to get buy-in from all stakeholders involved in the project.

You can think of it like this: The stages incorporate the elements of a great classroom. You’re learning, training, testing, and coming up with solutions. The gates are like the final exam.

Before a project can begin, you’ve got to uncover opportunities. This can be a result of brainstorming or random ideas. You might consult employees, customers, and suppliers. This is the first attempt to create a viable idea that’s worth pursuing.

Boxes depicting the five stages of the stage-gate process — scoping, business plan, development, testing, and launching.

The five phases of the stage-gating process.

Stage 1: Scoping

Scoping in the stage-gate process for new product development gets more serious about evaluating the potential of the product. It will include competitive analysis, marketplace analysis, and analysis of the product’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. The project scope also includes an evaluation of the technical merits of the project.

Stage 2: Business plan concept

If the previous gate has been cleared, it’s time to draw up a business plan and use case. This is where many projects get scrubbed. Three main components need to be assessed at this stage of the product development process:

  • Product and project definition
  • Project justification
  • Product plan

As part of this stage, it’s essential to do a feasibility review to assess the odds of success and ballpark costs for development. If the use case doesn’t pencil out, the gate closes.

Stage 3: Development

In this stage, plans are broken down into specific deliverables, such as the design and development of the product. It will include timelines and milestones that must be achieved. Besides product development, plans are often created for marketing launches, operationalization, and testing and validation.

This stage typically ends with a working model or prototype of the product being developed. If not, the gate requires a go/kill/hold/recycle decision.

Stage 4: Testing and validation

With a working model in hand, it’s time for validation testing of the project. Each aspect of the use case must be tested, including the product, production process, economics, and customer engagement and acceptance.

Many teams using the stage-gate approach break this into sub-stages with their own gates.

  • Near testing: Eliminating any potential production or product errors before the product goes to market
  • Field testing: Real-world testing of the product, typically by customers to identify flaws or features that need to be addressed
  • Market testing: Research to focus marketing efforts for product launch

This stage concludes with a viable product that’s ready for market and a plan for how to launch.

Stage 5: Product launch

Finally, we’re ready to set the product free. At this stage, we’re in full production mode and doing a commercial roll-out. Sales materials are developed and marketing efforts are launched.


Organize your project management

Even the largest companies can fall victim to mistakes. Just ask Microsoft about their Vista operating system, which made it to market despite early adopters reporting it reduced PC performance, or their Microsoft Bob software, which required more processing power than most home computers had at the time of launch.

More recently, you might think about Quibi, the $1.7 billion subscription streaming platform from Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg that only worked on smartphones. It was shut down after just six months.

Stage gating gives you multiple places to test your assumptions and ensure you’ve proved your use case before moving forward. It can prevent costly mistakes.

Whether you’re using spreadsheets, flowcharts, sticky notes, or project management software, stage gating is an effective way to organize your product development process. By creating multiple gates — each which must be cleared — it can prevent bad products from going to market and ensure a rigid process to test, validate, and launch.

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The Motley Fool has a Disclosure Policy. The Author and/or The Motley Fool may have an interest in companies mentioned. Click here for more information.

Teresa Kersten, an employee of LinkedIn, a Microsoft subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Bristol Myers Squibb and Microsoft. The Motley Fool owns shares of Fitbit. The Motley Fool recommends Lululemon Athletica. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.