Lessons from the discoverer of Stage-Gate for product managers
Today we are talking with a legend in product management. Our guest is Dr. Robert Cooper, who discovered the now famous Stage-Gate process and was named the “World’s Top Innovation Management Scholar” by the prestigious Journal of Product Innovation Management. Besides his best-selling books Winning at New Products and Portfolio Management for New Products, he has published more than 130 articles on R&D and innovation management. He is frequently helping organizations succeed while also holding the role of Professor Emeritus at McMaster University and Distinguished Research Fellow at Penn State University.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[3:05] What key challenges are medium and large organizations encountering today when trying to get new products into the marketplace?
We’re facing new uncertainty and risks. Companies have to think about what to do short-term to keep the lights on and what to do long-term for bolder innovations. Some companies will retreat and cut their spending by cutting bolder long-term innovations, and we saw in the recession around 2010 that was a bad strategy.
In some mature industries, it is increasingly difficult to find opportunities for new products. In the 1920s and 1930s, there was no absence of problems in telecommunications. They couldn’t even send a long-distance call because there were no amplifiers, no vacuum tubes, and no transistors. They had to invent all those things. When you have no absence of customer or user problems, if you’re reasonably intelligent, you can usually come up with the inventions and the necessary breakthrough new products. Today it’s harder in the telecommunications business because there are problems but not as evident as formerly. Other industries like IT are still going strong with many opportunities and problems to solve, but it’s becoming increasingly tougher to find fantastic voids in the marketplace.
Another challenge is fortitude of the general manager to keep spending at the same level when it is tougher and tougher to get the return on investment you need.
On the other hand, there are all kinds of new technologies like AI, biosciences, and new opportunities in the medical field. These technological possibilities should generate all kinds of new product opportunities.
[7:38] What advice do you give leaders about making strategic decisions?
There are many risks and uncertainties like the supply chain, market size, and expected profitability. The numbers we put in our business cases are notoriously wrong often by a factor of two. Many business cases are fantasy because there are so many unknowns, which people usually don’t factor in. Take a hard look at how you do your business case in light of increasing uncertainties and build that in somehow.
I have a new article coming out on expected commercial value, which builds likelihoods into the business case. How do you estimate likelihoods? We didn’t know how to do it in the past, but now we have estimates from companies like Dow Chemical and 3M. They have put together probability tables that give the likelihood of success under certain circumstances, because they’ve studied enough projects to know. Do the net present value calculations with correction factors for likelihood of success.
The other piece of advice is getting the product right. Sometimes people do voice-of-customer analysis and think they understand the customer’s needs, then spend a year designing a prototype, then do field trials and everything goes wrong. The customer’s needs have changed or the customers didn’t understand their own needs.
Instead, we recommend iterative innovation. Build something really fast and demo it to the customer to get instant feedback. Get the product out in their face fast, early, often, and cheap. The first version doesn’t have to be the real product. You can create a computer simulation or animation. Show the customer something in the first three weeks of development and repeat every four weeks. Demo to management too because you need their buy-in and support.
[13:07] What’s an example of using iterative innovation?
Steve Jobs said, “Customers don’t know what they want until they see it.” LEGO has a B2B business called LEGO Education, which sells learning products to schools and teachers. It’s a combination of IT software and LEGO blocks. There was a new product coming out that LEGO had been working on for about four years and couldn’t get right. It was a creative writing curriculum to teach younger children how to be more creative writers. LEGO had several panels of teachers, and they asked them, “What are you looking for in this product?” And the teachers weren’t sure. One of the teachers finally said, “Why don’t you build something and show it to us? And then we’ll tell you if it’s right.” The team got into iterative development or Agile Stage Gate, and it worked very well.
[17:46] What do organizations need to rethink about portfolio management?
One of the major challenges is having too many projects in the pipeline for available resources. Nobody has the fortitude to say no, so the default option is to do them all. By doing them all, we guarantee they’re all late. When you do a portfolio review and re-rank all the projects, you find out that a few of them that look shiny and bright at the beginning are not quite so shiny and bright over time. Maybe it is time for a tough re-review of the entire set of projects to kill some of them to benefit the whole portfolio.
You can rank the projects from 1 to 15, lop off the bottom 5, and reallocate the resources to the top 10, but who has the guts to do that? You’re going to be annoying or discouraging somebody. But let’s face it, some projects are the bottom third and maybe their resources are better spend on the the top two thirds.
You have to have buckets and rank each bucket separately because you can’t compare minor modifications and bold innovations. Someone has to have the method and the guts to do this re-ranking and get top management on board. Those meetings are pretty tough, especially the first one, but it has got to be done. Otherwise your projects are going to be late or under-resourced, and success rates will go down.
Use a good method for ranking projects. Have a tough portfolio manager. Have a good data system.
Often, when projects go through gates or portfolio review, the only criteria for go are “Is it on schedule?” and “Is it on budget?” Those are the the wrong questions. They’re backward-looking questions. Instead, ask forward-looking questions like, “Does this project still offer great value to the company?” and “What’s the financial value going forward?” Net present value and productivity index are good metrics for that.
[22:55] What bucket approach do you use?
The first key step is knowing where your money and resources are going now. Make a pie chart of the breakdown across the buckets by numbers of projects, a second pie chart of where the resources are going, and a third pie chart of first-year sales for new projects. Often, you might find that where the sales are coming from is not where the resources are going. You might be putting most of your seed on the worst fields.
[28:03] What do people misunderstand about Stage-Gate that you would like them to know?
The Stage-Gate process came from stories of successful entrepreneurs and teams. These projects had bold and assertive project leaders and teams that did everything right and had huge successes. Today companies have lost that entrepreneurial risk-taking approach. They’ve burdened their Stage-Gate process with too much paperwork and check-the-box exercises.
Get rid of non-value-added work. Apply Lean principles. Map out your process beginning-to-end on a big roll of paper or post-it-notes. Get rid of all the unnecessary stuff. It only takes about a day to do that exercise and then a little longer to improve the process. Before you get into Agile, get your process working right.
Action Guide: Put the information Bob shared into action now. Click here to download the Action Guide.
“There are two ways to win at new products. The first way is ‘doing projects right’—and that’s what Stage-Gate is all about—a stage-by-stage process to drive new products to market effectively. The second way is ‘doing the right projects’—and that’s about project selection, making the right investment decisions, and portfolio management. The problem here is that management’s batting average is worse than the toss of a coin—only 25% percent of projects approved for development become commercial successes! Let’s see how to do both ways to win better.” – Bob Cooper
Thank you for taking the journey to product mastery and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it using the social media buttons you see below.