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Beyond Stage-Gate: New Approaches to Managing Breakthrough Innovation Projects



The stage-gate process has long been a staple of product development, providing structure and governance to take ideas from conception to launch. However, this linear, milestone-driven approach falls short when it comes to breakthrough innovations that aim to profoundly shift human behaviors. Companies like BMW and Air France have pioneered new management frameworks better suited to handle the ambiguity and unpredictability inherent in driving transformational change.


Today we will explore the limitations of the stage-gate model for breakthrough projects and detail some of the alternative frameworks companies are using to nurture game-changing ideas.


The Stage-Gate Shortcomings


The traditional stage-gate process divides product development into discrete stages separated by go/no-go gates. This provides discipline to funnel out weak ideas and helps managers track progress. However, it relies on a linear execution plan defined upfront when uncertainties are highest. Breakthrough innovations that attempt to fundamentally shift customer behaviors have murkier requirements and feedback loops. They involve greater technological and adoption risks that make their pathways unpredictable. Rigid stage-gate processes struggle to adapt to the inevitable changes in direction these projects require.


BMW’s Adaptive Framework


Recognizing these limitations, BMW has developed a more flexible project management framework for their radical i3 electric vehicle. They divide the initiative into areas focused on key questions like technology feasibility, usage patterns, and manufacturing. Work streams within these areas iterate rapidly to test hypotheses and evolve the concepts. The overall project coordinates across these streams but remains nimble to adjustments as learning occurs. Rather than preset timelines, BMW manages based on achievement of key milestones or ‘maturity gates’ that demonstrate proof of concept and readiness to proceed. This empowers teams to adapt tactics while driving toward the strategic vision.


Air France’s Minimum Viable Experience


Air France faced a significant challenge in shifting customer habits toward self-service check-in. Their approach focused on quickly building a ‘minimum viable experience’ that provided core functionality, then iteratively refining it based on customer feedback. This allowed them to fail fast and cheaply on initial concepts and build knowledge of what worked. They rolled the evolving product out incrementally so they could isolate and address issues. By embracing setbacks as learning opportunities not failures, they were able to successfully adapt the product until it reached broad adoption. This experimentation-driven process provided flexibility missing from rigid stage-gate models.


Principles for Managing Breakthroughs


These examples illustrate ways companies are reinventing project management for transformational innovation. Some key principles that enable this include:

  • Divide initiatives into rapid iterative work streams around key questions or capabilities, not preset stages and gates

  • Develop minimum viable versions to start learning quickly, guide evolution

  • Manage to strategic milestones based on demonstrated knowledge, not timelines

  • Test hypotheses early and often, make adjustments as learnings dictate

  • Implement incrementally to isolate issues and build adoption momentum

  • View setbacks as data to adapt and improve, not failures

  • Engage a broad community and co-create with customers to build insights

  • Maintain transparency and shared purpose to enable autonomy and agility

These practices require managers to take on new roles as vision-setters, coordinators, and facilitators who empower teams to adapt based on learnings. They represent a profound shift from controlling rigid plans.


Conclusion


The unpredictability of breakthrough innovations demands project management approaches that embrace uncertainty and evolution. Clinging to the linear stage-gate model only handicaps efforts to drive transformational change. Leaders must be willing to trade false security of detailed plans for the flexibility to nurture game-changing ideas. With the future landscape sure to bring increasing disruption, adopting these exploratory project management principles will only grow in importance. Companies that cling to rigid practices do so at their peril.

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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