How product managers should combine flexibility and rigor in an agile stage-gate process.
Just about every organization I have worked with this year wants more agility in their product management processes. They want to get new products to market faster and release enhanced versions in less time. Product managers and leaders are feeling the pressure.
To discuss practical ways to add agility and flexibility, our guest from episode 177 is joining us again, Colin Palombo.
Previously, he shared how to create a hybrid agile stage-gate process. This time we get into even more specifics. Most organizations have some form of a stage-gate or phase-age approach to developing products, and for good reasons. After listening to this discussion, you’ll have ideas for adapting and improving your process.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers:
[5:04] What does a traditional stage-gate process look like?
Breaking down projects into stages helps companies make sure that the right information is gathered at the right time. Stage-gate introduces rigor to the process and makes sure that information about customers is gathered before product development begins. The gate component breaks down a project into a series of smaller stages, each with a smaller financial decision that can be stopped at any time. Cross-functional teams are also essential to the stage-methodology. Several sets of eyes looking at the same thing will bring different knowledge and expertise to the project.
[12:02] What types of products work best with the stage-gate?
It’s rare now that you have a purely digital or physical product. Every good has a bit of software, content, and physical product. The stage-gate process is evolving to bring together these different work streams. We’re also seeing the digital industry wanting to introduce stage gates to their agile project management. They lack the control to direct their teams to deliver valuable products, so they want to apply stage-gate to their agile processes.
[16:22] How do you add agility to a stage-gate process?
You first need to define what “agile” means. The essence is that you are planning, executing, evaluating, and adjusting in a short timeframe, known as a sprint or an iteration. You can break each stage of a stage-gate process into a number of sprints that are defined by time. Agile also relies on evidence-based work and focuses on experiments over documents. Rather than doing scoping exercises in PowerPoint and Word, companies are going out into the field and doing experiments. Mock ups, simulations, and 3D printing are making these experiments possible. We’re also seeing iterative development in the build stage and evaluation between prototype, alpha, and beta builds. Iteration happens at each stage in the process and you’re breaking the work into smaller chunks or sprints.
[24:15] How do you get past the notion that you need a large scale?
Full-scale market research is expensive and useful for understanding overall market dynamics, but not for a specific project. You can run small experiments in the early stages of a project to get feedback from a handful of customers, which will be enough to determine whether to move to the next stage and what might need to change before you do that. These types of experiments also get you out of the office and in front of customers. You need to have a specific question to answer or a hypothesis you’re trying to prove, such as finding out what outcomes the customer is trying to accomplish.
[28:33] What goes wrong when organizations try to implement this process?
We lack the discipline to get to a finishing point and we just keep iterating. The agile methodology allows you to limit the number of sprints you’re going to run before you make a decision and move on to the next stage. There’s also too much emphasis on Minimum Viable Product and you end up coming up with something that doesn’t meet the customer’s needs or solve the larger problem customers are having. You won’t make money and will damage your brand’s reputation in the process. It also sends a clear signal to your competitors about what you’re working on.
[32:56] How can you be flexible in scheduling gate reviews?
If you want the right people in the room, you need to have a regular schedule. Not all the same gatekeepers need to be at every gate. You don’t need senior executives involved in early gate decisions; those decisions can be delegated so you’re not constrained by the executives’ schedules. Executives should be involved at gate 3 before you move into real development that requires major financial resources.
“The enemy of thriving is arriving.” -Lee Brower, Strategic coach
Thank you for being an Everyday Innovator 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 on your favorite social network.